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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And it wouldn't necessarily stop there. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found four villages, including Shishmaref, to be in "imminent danger" and 20 others to have serious problems. Overall, 184 out of 213 Alaska native villages face some flooding and erosion, the GAO report noted, although how much is due to global warming and how much to the natural movement of rivers and coasts is uncertain.

Although most Shishmaref residents want to relocate, they also are worried about moving inland. Nayokpuk fears that the cost of living will double if fuel has to be transported over land. And Stanley Tocktoo, the vice mayor, says that it will be harder to dig the ice cellars the villagers use for fermenting their meat in the mud beneath the Tin Creek site than it was in Shishmaref's sand. As his son Harvey, 11, watches a Jackie Chan movie and picks fermented-walrus morsels off his father's plate, Tocktoo reflects that the farther away the village has to move from the ocean, the more trouble it will be "to get access to all this good food."

An expensive precedent may be set here. If global warming ever begins washing away coastal towns in the rest of the U.S., the cost of mass relocations would be unimaginable. But Shishmaref's villagers are adamant about their need to stay together, and they greet with horror any suggestion that they be dispersed to Nome or Kotzebue. The village — where everyone knows everyone else's name, and everyone is more or less related to everyone else — must relocate as a whole, or it would be the "annihilation of our community by dissemination," says Eningowuk. Whatever the solution, the Inupiaq are looking for it to be paid for by the folks who sent them global warming in the first place. And who would that be? "The Nalauqmiu — white people," says Eningowuk with a rueful smile.

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