Shishmaref (AFP) Alaska, Oct 10, 2006
The Inupiaq of Shishmaref have lived in this island village for generations, but with the waters rising all around and ever fierce storms blasting the settlement, they are being forced to move far away from the seas they have always depended upon. The Alaskan village's plight is a stark example of the dramatic effects of global warming as it challenges an entire community's way of life.
Winds sweep across the island from the broad, endless waters of the Chukchi sea, north of the Bering Strait and just 150 kilometers (90 miles) from Russia.
Battering waves have destroyed boats, fish reserves and storage buildings once well away from the water's threat, said an official overseeing the village's move. A house collapsed and about 20 households had to move away from the shore.
"Every year ... we agonize that the next storm will be the one that wipes us out," Luci Eningowuk, chairwoman of the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition," told AFP.
About 600 people, mostly Inupiaq, live on the island, which is about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north of the closest Alaskan city, Nome, from where a small plane flies visitors to the island.
The village, at the tip of a 600-meter wide and five-kilometer long island, sits on frozen sand called "permafrost," which is vulnerable to erosion as temperatures rise.
"There is a significant warming in Alaska for at least 30 years. Air temperatures are increasing and temperature in permafrost is warming," said Vladimir Romanovsky, professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The thawing makes permafrost more vulnerable to floods triggered by melting ice-floes and glaciers that cause the sea to rise, he said.
Deborah Williams, the former executive director of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, warned last year that the US state was in trouble.
"Alaska is the tip of the melting iceberg, or the canary in the coal mine with an impending heat stroke," she said in April 2005.
Robert Corell presented to a US Senate committee in 2004 a study on the impact of climate change in the Arctic.
"Climatic changes are the largest and are being experienced most intensely in the Arctic region," Corell told the panel.
For the people of Shishmaref, the effects of climate change are painfully real.
The village voted in 2002 to move to the Alaska continent and nine locations are being considered.
"Once the community decides on the site, it probably won't be another five years until we actually start moving something," said Village Transportation Planner Tony Weyiouanna.
Weyiouanna estimated the move would cost between 160 million and 200 million dollars, and that more money would be needed to build a new village.
The Inupiaq have lived on the island for 4,000 years, he said. "We are coastal people. The sea is our main diet".
To Eningowuk, the relocation chairwoman, integrating into another community was unacceptable.
"Relocation of our community to an area away from our home territory would have a devastating impact on how we exist and who we are," she said.
"Consolidation with another community is not acceptable (because) dissemination of our community is the annihilation," she said. "We are a community tied together by family, common goals, values, and traditions. We are different from our neighbors."
For village resident Ardith Weyiouanna, moving to the mainland will be "a very big change. Another way of life, a new life with lots of connections with the land."
earlier related report
But the age-old traditions of Shishmaref are threatened by global warming, which has already forced the 600 residents to vote to move to the continent as the sea chips away at the village's eroding shore.
The receding ice in the Arctic will cause certain animals such as polar bears, walruses and seals to become rare, according to Robert Corell, who wrote a study on climate change's impact on the Arctic.
Caribou and reindeer could also become more scarce, he said in the "Arctic Climate Impact Assessment."
"Climate change in the Arctic is a human and cultural, as well as an environmental issue," Corell said in the study.
Shishmaref's residents, who are mostly Inupiaq natives, live off fishing and hunting.
Flies have become a problem as they swarm on meat hanging in drying racks.
"There are more different kinds of flies than before," said Tony Weyiouanna, a town official. "It's very bad. ... We can't hang meat in certain parts of the year like we used to, so we have to freeze them."
In September, before the storm season, the hunters chase foxes, seals and other animals that are protected by the federal government and that only Native Alaskans can hunt.
Once killed, the animals are cut up on the tundra. The skins dry on racks before they are tanned. The hunters cover themselves with the skins, which are also sold in cities or made into traditional clothes.
"Our subsistence lifestyle is very strong, we still hunt traditionally," said village resident Ardith Weyiouanna.
The Shishmaref diet is heavy on animal fat, whose nutritional value is essential for the body in one of the coldest places on Earth.
Weyiouanna's pantry is filled with sticks of smoked salmon and dried seal, which was drained of its oil and which in turn will be used for cooking.
On her table recently, she cut up a piece of caribou after taking out the fat, which she fries.
The whiskered walrus is also part of the menu in Shishmaref. The large animal is buried in the sand for fermentation. Its skin and fat will become delicacies.
Weyiouanna likes to make "ice cream" made with caribou fat and seal oil.
The former school assistant and her 70-year-old husband Johnny have seven children, 11 grandchildren and one great-grandson. All live in Shishmaref except a daughter who lives in the mainland city of Anchorage.
Their 43-year-old son Perry, who like many Shishmaref residents is unemployed, makes some money selling mammoth fossils that wash up from the sea.
He hasn't been as lucky as his neighbor, who found a three-meter long, 350-kilogram mammoth tusk and sold it for 20,000 dollars, Perry said.
The residents of Shishmaref also make money carving sculptures with animal tusks and whale bones.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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