Swallowed by the Sea
Like most of the other 600 residents of Shishmaref, Alaska, Weyiouanna, 44, is an Inupiaq Eskimo. His people, who arrived across a now-vanished land bridge from Siberia, just 100 miles away, have survived on this patch of tundra for thousands of years. But now the side effects of global warming are forcing them to flee.
Once frozen solid from October to mid-June, the sea of late remains ice-free through December. That alone would accelerate erosion of the island, which sits on a base of sand held together by permafrost. To make matters worse, severe storms have become more frequent in summer and fall, with crashing waves taking great bites out of Shishmaref's foundation. Since 1997 the restless waters have swept away one home and forced the relocation of 18 more. The sea is gnawing its way toward the airstrip—crucial for food deliveries and emergency evacuation. Says Glenn Juday, an environmental scientist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks: "The ground is literally melting beneath their feet."
And so the villagers have decided to leave before their island, only three miles long and a quarter-mile wide, disappears altogether. Last July—a month after yet another storm flooded much of Shishmaref—they voted 161-to-20 to relocate their entire community. They are still searching for a suitable site on the mainland, five miles away. Though residents believe that moving homes and other structures will be cheaper than starting from scratch, they will still need new roads, sewers and utilities. The estimated cost is $120 million, and no one knows where the money will come from. Yet most villagers see resettlement as the only hope for preserving their ancient culture.
Though they're partial to soda pop and surfing the Web, the people of Shishmaref—named for a 19th-century Russian sailor—live largely as their ancestors did. They hunt, fish, gather berries and wild greens and sew their own mukluks (animal-skin boots). When the catch is plentiful, they share it with neighbors. Moving en masse to a place nearby, the theory goes, would allow that way of life to continue—and to be passed down to the next generation. "With a new site the community can stay together and grow," says Weyiouanna, a master bone and ivory carver and a married father of four who helps organize the village's erosion-control efforts. Adds Joanne Pootoogooluk, 18, student council president at Shishmaref High School: "Everyone is kind of excited."
Not quite everyone. A snowball's throw from the school lives Weyiouanna's 60-year-old uncle Cliff, a former mayor, professional hunting guide and one of the few residents with indoor plumbing. He voted against relocation, arguing that no site on the mainland could offer the island's easy access to wild game—or its rich heritage. "People ask, 'Why the hell do you want to stay in Shishmaref?' " Cliff says. "This has been our home for thousands of years, and it fits our lifestyle. All we need for a year's meat and oil are six bearded seals and one or two walruses."
Still, he readily agrees that such traditional food sources are harder to come by these days. "There aren't many polar bears anymore," he says. "They've all gone further north." Diminished snowfall, he reports, has led to a dearth of salmonberries. "And we're seeing fish we don't know the names of, ugly ones I'd never eat."
Cliff Weyiouanna is not alone in noting environmental anomalies. Over the past century the planet has warmed about two degrees, according to federal studies, but parts of Alaska have grown four degrees hotter in just 30 years. "Things are going wild here," says Professor Juday. Along much of the coast the temperature change—which most scientists trace to worldwide emissions from smokestacks and exhaust pipes—has rendered permafrost alarmingly impermanent. In Fairbanks homeowners use hydraulic jacks to keep their houses from sinking into the once-solid ground. The state's glaciers are retreating by 15 percent every decade, and hunters are falling through unusually thin sea ice. Spruce-killing beetles, multiplying under relatively balmy conditions, have decimated the 4-million-acre forest on the Kenai Peninsula near Anchorage. The start of the Iditarod dogsled race will be moved 250 miles north this year due to poor snow conditions. "Alaska," Republican Sen. Ted Stevens said last year, "is harder hit by global climate change than any place in the world."
For Shishmaref that means constant struggle. Last October, for example, 14-ft. waves swept away dozens of drying racks filled with fish and game. "Every household had a rack," says Cliff Weyiouanna. "Half are gone now." But the storm brought out the best in the community, he adds: "The whole village helped out. We put telephone poles under the houses and pulled them away from the bluff with a tractor. Then the ladies came around with coffee and sandwiches for everyone." Village officials have applied for grants from the state and federal governments to build a higher sea wall, which could buy them some time to plan the relocation. They're racing to complete the move before a major disaster strikes and the authorities are forced to resettle the inhabitants among strangers.
"I don't want to have to tell my kids that they were once from Shishmaref, an island that was blown away," says Karen Sinnok, 34, manager of the general store and chairwoman of the local Erosion and Relocation Coalition. "We don't want to be forgotten."
Johnny Dodd in Shishmaref