IN September 2007, a rising star of Alaskan politics dared to take on one of the toughest issues for any leader: climate change. That summer, seasonal ice cover had fallen to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979. A few months earlier, former US vice president Al Gore had won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth.
It seemed as if the timing was right to deal with climate change and so the politician approached a group of high-level officials to develop a climate change strategy for Alaska.
The politician was Sarah Palin, then governor of Alaska before her entry into national Republican party politics.
“Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural and economic issue important to all Alaskans,” Palin said, announcing two new working groups on climate change.
“As a result of this warming, coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans,” she said.
The focus on climate was temporary. Once Palin joined the Republican ticket as the running mate to Senator John McCain in the 2008 US presidential elections, she dismissed climate science as “snake oil.”
The causes of climate change — and its remedies — remain disputed in Alaska. However, there is no disputing its effects. Alaska is warming faster than anywhere else in the US, setting off a scramble for oil given up by the melting ice and threatening the livelihood of those who still live off the land and the sea.
“Up here in Alaska, I would say most people do not have an argument that climate change is happening, because we see it,” said Douglas Causey, a wildlife biologist at the University of Alaska at Anchorage. “The debate is over what’s causing it.”
However, those debates, and the fierce politics surrounding climate change, compromise efforts to deal with the causes and protect the people who will bear a huge part of the consequences.
In late 2007 Palin was still in her first year as governor of Alaska and climate change was not the defining issue it was to become for US conservatives. She followed up her announcement of high-level climate change action groups with an even bigger conservative heresy: signing Alaska up as an observer to the regional cap-and-trade partnership, the Western Climate Initiative.
During Palin’s time as governor, high-level officials brought in consultants to look at ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Alaska’s oil industry and other sectors. Another set worked on trying to protect Alaska’s infrastructure from flooding, erosion and the extreme storms along the coast. The legislature sanctioned more than US$12 million to help indigenous Alaskan villages — such as Newtok, 643.7km south of the Bering Strait that separates the US from Russia — trying to shore up communities from climate risks or relocate.
Palin’s efforts did not survive her tenure as governor. Her successor, Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell, retired the Cabinet and “immediate action” working group.
Alaskan officials are still acutely aware of the changes and are working hard to position Alaska for an age in which shipping traffic across the pole doubles every year, and international concerns compete to mine vast oil, coal, zinc and copper deposits. They also realize the costs of a warming Arctic. The state spends US$10 million a year repairing roads that buckle as the permafrost underneath melts, says Larry Hartig, head of Alaska’s environment department. However, recognition of costs — and opportunities — does not translate into explicit recognition of climate change and the impact it is already having. Alaskan Lieutenant-Governor Mead Treadwell talks about climate change over a period of 10,000 years.
Hartig, who oversaw the work of the climate change sub-Cabinet established by Palin, now dismisses the original reasons for its existence.
“I don’t look at climate change as a subject in and of itself,” he said. “Coastal erosion and flooding, well, we would have them even if we didn’t worry about climate change.”
He said he would prefer to deal directly with the effects, rather than be drawn into that “other debate.”
However, from Tom John’s perspective, it is hard to separate the two. John, now in his 50s, was for years counted among the best hunters in Newtok. The status is confirmed by the dappled hide of a muskox stretched out to dry outside his home. Inside, his wife, Bernice, has taken out a whole halibut to defrost for dinner from a freezer chest full of fish and meat from previous expeditions.
When John was younger, there was a rhythm to the seasons. April brought pike fish and white fish, seal and walrus. High summer on the Bering Sea brought herring, flounder and sometimes king salmon, and berries back on land. Winter brought mink, muskox and otter, which John used to sell to a fur trader.
A hunter could strike out in almost any direction and be assured of coming back with food. John’s favorite route was out towards the ocean, 8km or 16km south, to catch bearded seal. Those patterns have been thrown off, he says.
“It seems like during the fall-time the freeze-up is getting late. I used to travel through the month of October and I could travel through the snow without any problem, without jamming through ice,” he says. “But today winter is getting late. It comes late, probably November, and I also noticed the snow pack seems harder. When I try to shovel, it’s like cement. It’s really hard to dig.”
There are other changes on John’s calendar: shorter, warmer winters, earlier springs, and the floods and rising waters that could make Newtok disappear beneath the Ninglick River. The river has reduced Newtok into a small island. The villagers are trying to move to a new site, 14km south, before it is engulfed. The US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the highest point could be under water by 2017.
John’s way of life, which survived the arrival of snowmobiles, food stamps and online shopping at Walmart, is threatened. The migration habits of the animals and fish on which the John family depend have changed. Some animals are scarce now on the Bering coast.
Seals of all variety are still plentiful. Outside one house in Newtok, seven are stacked up behind a snowmobile. However, walrus have grown hard to find.
“Twenty years ago, I could see walrus and hardly see the end of them. There were lots of them, thousands, but today I don’t see that any more,” John said.
Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the US, with a nearly 2.4°C increase in average statewide temperatures since 1949, according to the US National Climate Assessment draft. Temperatures could rise by up to 13.2°C by 2100 without bold action, the report says. On land, the glaciers are melting at a faster rate than ever recorded. Land that had been shored up by frozen layers of permafrost has softened and sunk. The first snow arrives on average two days later than it did a decade ago, and melts four to six days earlier in the spring. Rivers swollen by heavier rain and snow flood more often.
At sea, the summer sea ice has melted and thinned, leaving open waters. Last year saw the biggest loss of summer sea ice since satellite tracking began in the 1970s. At the height of summer, less than a quarter of the Arctic was under ice.
Scientists have been revising their estimates of when the Arctic will be ice-free. Only a few years ago, most scientists put that date off until mid-century or beyond. They are now converging around a date of 2030 for an ice-free Arctic in the summer.
The Arctic will still freeze over every winter, but the remaining ice will be thinner, 2m or less, compared with older layers up to 4m deep. After years of record melts, barely 5 percent of the ice in the Arctic has lasted for four or more summers, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. The remaining ice, which is thinner, is more susceptible to melting.
The retreat has left large areas of coastline without ice barriers to blunt the impact of storm surges and larger areas of open water produce bigger waves. Those changes have invaded indigenous Alaskan villages as well. Floodwaters engulf village boardwalks during spring break-up. Extreme storms make it unsafe to go out hunting or trapping. Nobody feels safe or secure.
Then there is the erosion that has hit so many indigenous Alaskan villages. Coastal erosion rates in the Arctic are among the world’s highest because of increased wave action from the Bering Sea. In some areas, erosion rates have doubled since the early 2000s, according to a report by the department of interior.
“The truth is that almost all of our communities will at some point or at some period of time experience some problems associated with climate change,” Alaska Native Science Commission Director Patricia Cochran said.
“We are the first populations that are really seeing the immense changes that are occurring. It certainly takes a toll ... It’s in your face every day and it’s not something you can run away from,” she said.
Since the time Alaska’s governor decided the state no longer needed to plan for climate change, Bernice and Tom John have lived through two spring floods and two ferocious autumn storm seasons.
In that time, Newtok has lost sewage lagoons and its water supply, which was contaminated by salt water and sewage. A few families have scrapped their traditional ice cellars, buried in the permafrost, after melting made them unreliable as food stores.
The Johns watched the Ninglick River rip the land out from under them. The couple hope Newtok’s move to the new village site at Mertarvik will take place before it is too late. Whatever lies in store for the village, it will not be long now, Bernice figures.
“We’ve got about two years, that’s what I think,” she said.
The villages on the front line
Almost all of Alaska’s indigenous villages are learning to live with the dramatic changes in the far north: the thinning sea ice and the melting of the frozen sub-soil known as permafrost. However, for some villages the consequences of climate change are a direct threat to their existence.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.