Sea engulfing Alaskan village - Global Warming Strikes Alaska
Date: Wednesday, September 15, 2004 @ 23:52:57 MST
By David Willis
BBC correspondent in Shishmaref, Alaska
It is thought to be the most extreme example of global warming on the planet. The village of Shishmaref lies on a tiny island on the edge of the arctic circle - and it is literally being swallowed by the sea.
Houses the Eskimos have occupied for generations are now wilting and buckled.
Some have fallen into the sea. Not only is the earth crumbling underfoot, but the waves are rising ominously all around.
As we walked across the narrow strip of beach that was his playground as a kid, village elder Tony Weyiouanna pointed to a series of barricades that have been erected over the years in the hope of stemming the tide.
"All of our efforts have been to protect our community," he told me. Has it worked? "Not yet."
Tony estimates the tide moves an average of 10 feet (three metres) closer to the land every year. When he was growing up, it was roughly 300 feet (91 metres) from where it is now.
Professor Gunter Weller, director of the University of Alaska's Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research, says several factors are at play in this part of the Arctic.
Because temperatures in Alaska have increased by as much as 4.4C over the last 30 years, glaciers are starting to melt, causing the sea levels to rise.
The increased temperature is also thawing the frozen ground, which is known as permafrost, on which the arctic communities such as Shishmaref were built.
It is this thawing that is causing the ground to crumble like sand.
Professor Weller says there are many other villages in Alaska that are suffering similar problems, although not quite on the same scale.
"Shishmaref is an indication of what to expect in the future in other parts of the world," he told me. "In that respect it is the canary in the coal mine."
The villagers here have now taken a difficult decision. Staying here indefinitely could put their lives in danger.
And so instead of fighting nature over land that has been theirs for generations, they have reluctantly concluded that preserving life is more important than preserving their lifestyle.
Soon this entire village will be relocating to the mainland - making the people of Shishmaref the first refugees of global warming.