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Alaskan Village Copes With Real-life Impacts of Global Climate Change

July 10, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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In Shishmaref, Alaska -- a 600-person village 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle -- residents are feeling the effects of climate change: earlier sea ice melts and increasing storm surges. Tom Bearden reports on how the residents are coping.
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: When Perry and John Weyiowanna go hunting, they travel several miles across snow-packed ice looking for bearded seals that swim in the Chukchi Sea.

NATIVE ALASKAN: OK, right here?

NATIVE ALASKAN: Good spot, pal.

NATIVE ALASKAN: Oh, yeah, good.

TOM BEARDEN: The two cousins are Inupiat Eskimos who live in the village of Shishmaref on a barrier island just 20 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

NATIVE ALASKAN: There must be younger ice beyond us, huh, because we’re the other side of this ridge? And then there were seals very close.

TOM BEARDEN: Although they use modern snowmobiles — or snow machines, as they’re called up here — the villagers are continuing their traditional way of life.

PERRY WEYIOWANNA, Resident of Shishmaref, Alaska: Our main food is the bearded seal and walrus and other seals. Right after the bearded seal is taken care of, then the salmon come, and then, right after that, salmon, and then, a few weeks later, then the berries are ready. And then everybody goes through a different stage of activity, but it’s still hands-on.

TOM BEARDEN: Now they fear that way of life — indeed, the very existence of their village of 600 people — could be endangered because of changes in the climate.

The sea ice has been melting earlier in the spring and forming later in the fall. The level of the sea is also rising; that means higher waves during fall storms.

In the past, sea ice has served as a barricade to protect the shoreline. But without it, the storm surge has undercut the ground beneath structures close to the water’s edge. All of this has dramatically increased the chance that a storm could submerge the entire island.

PATRICIA OPHEEN, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: In a storm surge, if the water gets high enough, they would be inundated.

TOM BEARDEN: Trish Opheen is chief of engineering for the Alaska District of the Army Corps of Engineers.

PATRICIA OPHEEN: During those types of events, there really is very little evacuation assistance that can be provided, because you’re dealing with rough seas. To go by water, you’re typically in the midst of a storm, so providing air assistance is extremely difficult.

TOM BEARDEN: The corps is the main federal agency for dealing with coastal erosion in Alaska. It’s identified 11 other native villages, in addition to Shishmaref, which it says are at immediate risk of being damaged or destroyed because of climate change. And it says 180 villages will be affected to some degree by warming temperatures.

The corps has already begun some short-term projects to protect at-risk communities. In Shishmaref, it’s in the midst of building a 150-foot-long rock barrier.

But there’s a general consensus that these sorts of measures will merely delay the inevitable, that eventually this entire village will have to move to higher ground. And then the question becomes, who’s going to pay for it?

Government history creates problem

Percy Nayokpuk
Resident of Shishmaref, Alaska
They very easily could have built it on the mainland and everybody would have been on the mainland. Shishmaref is here mainly because the government insisted we move here.

PERCY NAYOKPUK, Resident of Shishmaref, Alaska: I think most of us have the same conclusion here is, in that we're not going to beat Mother Nature.

TOM BEARDEN: Percy Nayokpuk is one of the elders in Shishmaref. He owns one of the island's two grocery stores.

Residents here voted six years ago to move the village to safer ground on the mainland just a few miles away, but such a move will be expensive. Estimates run as high as $200 million to $300 million for each village.

And Nayokpuk thinks the federal government should pick up much of that tab. Nayokpuk says, for 400 years, his people lived in smaller, more nomadic communities, which could easily pick up and move.

But in the 1920s, the federal government mandated that all native children must get a formal education, so it built a central school on the island, effectively ending the nomadic way of life.

PERCY NAYOKPUK: They very easily could have built it on the mainland and everybody would have been on the mainland. Shishmaref is here mainly because the government insisted we move here.

Now, I think they should also remember that and maybe also give us a hand with the move. We certainly can't do it ourselves.

TOM BEARDEN: The median family income in Shishmaref is $30,000 a year, and virtually every household on the island receives some sort of government assistance.

It's hard to imagine why rebuilding a village like this in another location would be so expensive. After all, the roads here aren't paved and the homes have no indoor plumbing. Instead, they use what are euphemistically called "honey buckets."

But the corps' Opheen says, if the federal or state government is involved, it means following strict rules and regulations for housing and infrastructure, all of which is costly. New construction also means transporting building materials a great distance and bringing in workers.

PATRICIA OPHEEN, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: You've got a crew of 25, 30 people. You have to bring everything in to house that crew for construction, including their housing, water, as well as all of the food.

The transportation and the hauling to get these folks to those locations is extremely expensive. And we're moving to a location, typically if they do relocate, that doesn't have a road service to it. So even building the road service up to the new community has an expense associated with it.

Some meet problem head on

Heather Kendall-Miller
Native American Rights Fund
The basis of the lawsuit is attempting to find a way of bringing a tort case against the greatest carbon emitters, to hold them responsible for the changes that are taking place on our globe, on our planet.

TOM BEARDEN: One native village isn't waiting for the federal or state governments to act. Three hundred and seventy miles south of Shishmaref, villagers in Newtok acquired land and found grant money to build houses at a new location.

Their current village is rapidly sinking because of melting permafrost. In fact, during summer months, many of their boardwalks are completely submerged.

And while they ultimately will need state and federal money to build major projects, like a barge landing and an airport, state officials applaud Newtok for what it's doing.

Larry Hartig admits the government has been slow to come to the aid of native people.

LARRY HARTIG, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation: We're very proud of the people in Newtok. And they're doing a great job out there in helping themselves. And that's what each of the communities needs to do. It's what the state needs to do. We all need to step up to the plate here, and Newtok's done that.

TOM BEARDEN: Hartig heads up a new committee appointed by the governor to develop a long-range plan to deal with the financial and cultural effects of climate change.

But the residents of the village of Kivalina, about 100 miles north of Shishmaref, are skeptical the government will actually provide the kind of money that's necessary.

Their village has been battered by violent storms, like this one four years ago, and each storm takes with it a chunk of their land. They've decided to try a novel approach at funding their move. Earlier this year, they filed a lawsuit against oil and gas companies for causing climate change.

Heather Kendall-Miller is one of their attorneys.

HEATHER KENDALL-MILLER, Native American Rights Fund: The basis of the lawsuit is attempting to find a way of bringing a tort case against the greatest carbon emitters, to hold them responsible for the changes that are taking place on our globe, on our planet.

And these changes are being felt the most by people who have contributed the least amount of carbon. And those happen to be native communities living in the Arctic.

NATIVE ALASKAN: And every time we have a big storm, it's falling real bad.

TOM BEARDEN: Kendall-Miller and her clients from Kivalina are patterning the suit after the big tobacco lawsuit from the 1990s, charging the companies with public nuisance and conspiracy to knowingly mislead the public about global warming.

Kendall-Miller says she knows the suit is a long shot, but says it's a last-ditch effort.

HEATHER KENDALL-MILLER: There is a role for government here, and there is a role for the courts, and there is a role for big business to each come forward and contribute to what the costs of climate change are.

And those costs are very, very high right now, because we are at the edge of a cliff, and we're about to fall over, unless each of us assumes some responsibility for dealing with the magnitude of these changes.

A way of life is home to Alaskans

Lucy Adams
Resident of Kivalina, Alaska
We're always standing alone as little native people of Kivalina. Nobody don't want to help us. Finally, they start getting our attention, but we will not be split apart to other villages.

TOM BEARDEN: If enough money can't be found, either from big business or the state or federal governments to relocate the 12 villages, there's been talk of just dispersing residents to larger communities, like Nome or even Anchorage.

But all of the villagers we talked to said that wasn't an option. Lucy Adams and her son, Enok, live in Kivalina.

LUCY ADAMS, Resident of Kivalina, Alaska: We're always standing alone as little native people of Kivalina. Nobody don't want to help us.

Finally, they start getting our attention, but we will not be split apart to other villages. That's one thing they got to know. We have to live as community, not splitting families to other villages.

ENOK ADAMS, Resident of Kivalina, Alaska: Would you move into a total stranger's home? You wouldn't do that to live there for the rest of your life. That's how we feel. To ask us to do something like that is -- basically, that's what you would be asking us to do, move into somebody else's home.

TOM BEARDEN: An initial ruling on the Kivalina lawsuit is expected later this summer.

JIM LEHRER: On our Web site, you can watch an audio slideshow about life in the Alaskan village.