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In Alaska, an ancestral island home falls victim to global warming

By Joseph B. Verrengia
Saturday September 21, 2002


SHISHMAREF, Alaska — Stripped to his shirt sleeves on a desolate polar beach, the Inupiat Eskimo hunter gazes over his Arctic world. 

The midnight sun glitters on navy waves surrounding his island village. The town sits amid the ruins of dugouts that his ancestors chipped from the permafrost when pharaohs were erecting pyramids in the hot sands of Egypt. 

His children and their cousins play tag on a hummock where his wife’s parents and their parents are buried. 

Thousands of years ago, hungry nomads chased caribou here across a now-lost land bridge from Siberia, just 100 miles away. Many scientists believe those nomads became the first Americans. 

Now their descendants are about to become global warming refugees. Their village is about to be swallowed up by the sea. 

“We have no room left here,” says 43-year-old Tony Weyiouanna. “I have to think about my grandchildren. We need to move.” 

Weather dictates survival in the Arctic. Always it has been the fearsome cold that meant life or death. Now, Native Alaskans are alarmed by a noticeable warming trend. 

Average temperatures in the Arctic have risen more than 4 degrees since 1971 — about the same time, coincidentally, that the first snowmobile made an appearance. 

Weyiouanna still remembers, “It was mind-boggling to see a sled move without dogs pulling it.” 

Snowmobile aside, this is still a very rustic village. Its forlorn breakwater of sandbags, tires and rusting vehicles, is often breached by storms. Recently, four homes tumbled into the sea as villagers huddled in the Lutheran church. 

Fuel and water tanks teeter just a few strides from the brink. Another gale or two and the entire island — a half-mile at its widest, 10 feet at its highest — could be inundated. 

Weyiouanna’s ancestors simply would have loaded their dogsleds and mushed inland. But in modern times, moving a town means Shishmaref’s 600 residents must vote. 

It will cost at least $100 million, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says. 

It’s a staggering sum even by standards of Shishmaref, where a light bulb costs $10 at the Nayokpuk Trading Co. (They’re down the aisle from the Pringles and the wolf pelts.) 

Residents figure the government will pay, although state and federal officials say no relocation fund exists. 

It’s an upheaval many Americans might face in coming decades. 

In June, the Bush administration submitted a report to the United Nations acknowledging for the first time that climate change is real and unavoidable. The administration recommends adapting. 

Still unresolved is whether rising temperatures are caused by smokestacks and traffic jams pumping more heat-trapping emissions into the atmosphere. Or, natural variations in the complex relationship between the oceans, the atmosphere and the sun. Maybe it’s a little of each.