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

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?

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