Vanishing Alaska

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VINCENT J. MUSI / AURORA FOR TIME

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

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Still, like many of Alaska's native villages, Shishmaref clings to its subsistence culture. The town supports 10 dog teams, and a local musher, Herbie Nayokpuk, is known statewide as the Shishmaref Cannonball for his top-place finishes in the Iditarod race. Walrus-tusk carving is taught in school, along with the Inupiaq language. And if the town itself is ugly, it is balanced by the desolate beauty of the slate-colored sea, the ducks flying in formation over the lagoon and the musk ox roaming in emerald meadows dotted with wild cotton. Some two-thirds of the local diet still derives from hunting and fishing. In the diamond light of late summer, whole families forage for salmonberries, which the elders eat mixed with grated caribou fat. ("Eskimo ice cream," they call it.) The kids prefer it with Cool Whip.

"This is our grocery store," says Tony Weyiouanna, pulling shimmering white fish from his gill net.

But up and down Alaska's coast, alarm is spreading that the natural bounty on which the culture is built is at risk. At Point Hope, a bowhead-whaling village that dates from 600 B.C., flooding seawater threatens the airport runway and a seven-mile evacuation road. "During storms, people begin to panic," says town official Rex Rock. In the Pribilof Islands, villagers blame global warming along with industrial contaminants for the decline of 20 species, ranging from kelp to sea lion. In Barrow, capital of the oil-rich North Slope Borough, sandbags and dredging haven't protected $500 million in infrastructure. "We are at a crossroads," says Mayor Edith Vorderstrasse. "Is it practical to stand and fight our Mother Ocean? Or do we surrender and move?"

The prospect of relocating whole Eskimo villages — global warming's first American refugees — is gathering political support. Last January, Shishmaref citizens voted to move to a site called Tin Creek, 12 miles away, across a lagoon. And last June, Alaska's powerful Senator, Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, convened federal, state and local officials for a two-day hearing in Anchorage to hear impassioned pleas from village leaders who want help repairing their infrastructure or relocating. Among the most eloquent was Eningowuk, 54, a mother of six who heads the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition. "Shishmaref is where it is because of what the ocean, rivers, streams and the land provide to us," she testified. "We are hunters, and we are gatherers. We have been here for countless generations. We value our way of life. It provides for our very existence."

But moving Shishmaref to a more protected location could be prohibitively expensive, especially given the high cost of building in the Arctic. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers looked at relocating Kivalina, a nearby village of 380 people, the price tag was $100 million to $400 million — roughly $1 million for each resident.

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