November 9, 2007 / 4:24 PM / 13 years ago

Climate change endangers Alaska's coastal villages

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - At risk from surging storm waves and floods, Alaska’s coastal villagers are dealing with the immediate consequences of climate change — threats to their health, safety and even their ancestors’ graves.

The rapid erosion of the state’s coastline is blamed on the scarcity of sea ice and thawing of permafrost. Without solid ice to shield the land, and without hard-frozen conditions to keep it held fast, encroaching waves and floods easily carve large chunks from shorelines or riverbanks.

“People are dying and getting injured as a result of trying to engage in traditional activities in much-changing conditions,” said Deborah Williams, a former Interior Department official who heads an Alaska organization focused on climate change.

Alaska is heating up more dramatically than other regions because increases in temperature are accelerated in the far north, according to climate scientists.

That is largely because of a self-reinforcing warming cycle: the melt of white snow and disappearance of white ice exposes more dark land and water, which in turn absorb more solar radiation, which in turn causes more melting.

In Newtok, a village on Alaska’s western coast, floods routinely spread human waste from portable toilets — a necessity due to the lack of running water — across the community.

Village administrator Stanley Tom links the sewage spread to a rise in infants being hospitalized for upper-respiratory infections like pneumonia over a 10-year period.

In the villages along northwest Alaska’s Norton Sound, fall storms are bringing floods that turn land-based communities into islands.

Shaktoolik, a Bering Sea village that is one of the last checkpoints in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, becomes an island during heavy storms due to erosion that has erased much of the land link to the rest of the Seward Peninsula.

“They have no option to leave the community in the event of a storm,” said Steve Ivanoff, tribal administrator of nearby Unalakleet, who says the increased intensity of flooding is also a problem in his village.

Residents in Unalakleet are starting to relocate their homes to the inland hills, away from the traditional coastal community, he said.

DISAPPEARING GRAVES

The rapid erosion is also affecting the dead.

In Barrow, the northernmost community in North America, a project is under way to move human remains from millennium-old grave sites that were undisturbed until erosion started biting off chunks of shoreline lined with graves.

So far, the ancient remains of about 50 people have been excavated, said Anne Jensen, the archeologist in charge of the project. The goal is to rebury the remains in Barrow’s modern cemetery.

The environmental changes also make travel treacherous.

“Every winter there is the issue of village residents, especially hunters, who try to cross a river at a time it’s traditionally been safe, but now it isn’t,” said James Berner, community health services director for the Anchorage-based Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

A young hunter died earlier this year after falling into thin ice in Shishmaref, an eroding Inupiat Eskimo village often characterized as the place experiencing the most dramatic effects of climate change. It was the first such death in decades, according to local officials.

In some cases, the long-term solution is to move entire villages, projects that are anticipated to cost at least $100 million per community.

Newtok, one of three Alaska villages with detailed relocation plans, has already moved a few of its 62 houses to a new site called “Mertarvik,” which translates to “getting water from the spring” in the Yupik Eskimo language.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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