Vanishing Alaska

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Millions have been spent on rock seawalls, which quickly fall apart when violent storms come ashore

Shishmaref is melting into the ocean. Over the past 30 years, the Inupiaq Eskimo village, perched on a slender barrier island 625 miles north of Anchorage, has lost 100 ft. to 300 ft. of coastline — half of it since 1997. As Alaska's climate warms, the permafrost beneath the beaches is thawing and the sea ice is thinning, leaving its 600 residents increasingly vulnerable to violent storms. One house has collapsed, and 18 others had to be moved to higher ground, along with the town's bulk-fuel tanks.

Giant waves have washed away the school playground and destroyed $100,000 worth of boats, hunting gear and fish-drying racks. The remnants of multimillion-dollar seawalls, broken up by the tides, litter the beach. "It's scary," says village official Luci Eningowuk. "Every year we agonize that the next storm will wipe us out."

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The erosion of the island, now only a quarter-mile wide, is not the only ominous sign that large changes are afoot. The ice-fishing season that used to start in October has moved to December because the ocean freezes later each year. Berry picking begins in July instead of August. Most distressing for the Inupiaq is that thin ice makes it harder to hunt oogruk — the bearded seal that is a staple of their diet and culture. At the Nayokpuk Trading Co., where infant formula sells for $21 a package and the only eggs for sale, sent by bush plane, sit broken in their shells, the talk is of the disruption of nature's rhythms. "When was the last time we went hunting on snow machines?" owner Percy Nayokpuk asks a customer. "About 15 years," answers Reuben Weyiouanna. Because a loaded snowmobile would break through the ice, the elders these days have to drag their boats seven miles across the ice to go hunting — and the season begins in May instead of June. "If the weather keeps changing," says Nayokpuk, "it will mean the end of Shishmaref."

The fate of one stubborn little village normally wouldn't make much of a splash. But Shishmaref and other Alaskan settlements are attracting national attention because scientists see them as gloomy harbingers. "Shishmaref is the canary in the coal mine — an indicator of what's to come elsewhere," says Gunter Weller, director of the University of Alaska's Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research.

Global warming, caused in part by the burning of oil and gas in factories and cars, is traumatizing polar regions, where the complex meteorological processes associated with snow, permafrost and ice magnify its effects. A study published in Science last week reported that glaciers in West Antarctica are thinning twice as fast as they did in the 1990s. In Alaska the annual mean air temperature has risen 4F to 5F in the past three decades — compared with an average of just under 1F worldwide. As a result, the state's glaciers are melting; insects are destroying vast swaths of forest; and thawing permafrost is sinking roads, pipelines and homes. Arctic Ocean ice has shrunk 5% to 10%, at an accelerating rate. Says Weller: "There is natural variability, but the evidence is overwhelming that humanity has altered the climate."

It must be said that if Shishmaref sinks beneath the waves, it won't be much of a loss to global tourism. The village is so remote that no road connects it to the outside world. The occasional barge unloads fuel after the ice breaks up, and when the weather is good, battered bush planes ferry in DVDs and cartons of Cheetos from the Sam's Club in Fairbanks. Visually, this village is nothing like the romantic images of Eskimos in igloos from old National Geographic magazines. Weathered clapboard houses, surrounded by rusty engine parts, sit helter-skelter along muddy paths. Indoor plumbing is rare, and drinking water collects in plastic buckets under rain gutters. Empty Coke cans and cigarette packets litter the streets. In the ramshackle town hall, a sign reads, CITY OF SHISHMAREF BINGO WILL NOT BE ACCEPTING ANY MORE PERSONAL CHECKS. Another warns against siphoning gasoline from the village fire truck.

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