Sun, May 26, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Politics and climate change clash in Alaska

As governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin wanted a climate change strategy, but attitudes are now against the science even as the ice melts faster

By Suzanne Goldenberg  /  The Guardian, NEWTOK, Alaska

A government report in 2003 found that 86 percent of all indigenous Alaskan villages — 184 communities — were experiencing the consequences. The most destructive effects were erosion, flooding and extreme storms. Some of the villages considered most at risk are:

Kivalina

An Inupiaq Inuit village, with a population of about 400, Kivalina is situated on a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea, about 129km north of the Arctic circle. Villagers have survived for centuries by hunting bowhead whales. Climate change has led to their narrow barrier island rapidly losing land to the sea. The village is now overcrowded and it is dangerously exposed to severe storms.

In October, the state declared a disaster after the main water line to the village was destroyed by a storm. The village was forced to close the school and impose water rationing.

Engineers have concluded there is little hope of protecting the village. In the late 1990s, a severe storm took out a sea wall put together by the villagers with oil drums and debris. Years later, another storm destroyed a concrete version.

Residents have voted five times to move to a safer location, but have yet to get government approval for a site. The village lost a lawsuit in September blaming oil companies for climate change. Lawyers are trying to get the supreme court to take up the case.

Koyukuk

The former fur-trading post faces a triple threat: erosion, flooding and forest fires. The village, which has a population of about 90, decided to relocate in 2008, but has yet to choose a site.

Shaktoolik

A village of about 250 whose people are descended from two federally recognized tribes: the Unalit and Malemiut. They are on a sand spit between Norton Sound and the Tagoomenik River with all of the main buildings on a single street, now threatened by flooding and storm surge. The village has opted to stay and to try to use shoreline protections.

Shishmaref

An Inupiaq Inuit island in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait and 32km south of the Arctic circle. About 600 people live there. Extreme storms have destroyed homes. They voted to relocate in 2002 and have chosen relocation sites, but these have not yet been approved by federal and state governments.

Unalakleet

Unalakleet lost its water supply in March when the main water line froze solid. Engineers blame erosion that has been eating away at the coastline, exposing the pipe to the waves. Engineers have tried filling in the area, but it is a losing battle.

The village has also suffered severe floods and could even lose its airstrip — its only year-round access — by 2016, according to projections by the Army Corps of Engineers. Unlike other villages, Unalakleet occupies some higher ground so villagers are slowly moving there.

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