Warming climate disrupts Alaska natives' lives

Tuesday, April 20, 2004
By Yereth Rosen, Reuters

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Anyone who doubts the gravity of global warming should ask Alaska's Eskimo, Indian and Aleut elders about the dramatic changes to their land and the animals on which they depend.

Native leaders say that salmon are increasingly susceptible to warm-water parasites and suffer from lesions and strange behavior. Salmon and moose meat have developed odd tastes and the marrow in moose bones is weirdly runny, they say.

Arctic pack ice is disappearing, making food scarce for sea animals and causing difficulties for the Natives who hunt them. It is feared that polar bears, to name one species, may disappear from the Northern hemisphere by mid-century.

As trees and bushes march north over what was once tundra, so do beavers, and they are damming new rivers and lakes to the detriment of water quality and possibly salmon eggs.

Still, to the frustration of Alaska Natives, many politicians in the lower 48 U.S. states deny that global warming is occurring or that a warmer climate could cause problems.

"They obviously don't live in the Arctic," said Patricia Cochran, executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission. The Anchorage-based commission, funded by the National Science Foundation, has been gathering information for years on Alaska's thawing conditions.

The climate changes are disrupting traditional food gathering and cultures, said Larry Merculieff, an Aleut leader from the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.

Indigenous residents of the far north are finding it increasingly difficult to explain the natural world to younger generations. "As species go down, the levels of connection between older and younger go down along with that," Merculieff said at a recent Anchorage conference.

Safety Affected

Climate and weather changes even affect human safety, said Orville Huntington, vice chairman of the Alaska Native Science Commission.

"It looks like winter out there, but if you've really been around a long time like me, it's not winter," said Huntington, an Athabascan Indian from the interior Alaska village of Huslia. "If you travel that ice, it's not the ice that we traveled 40 years ago."

River ice, long used for travel in enterior Alaska, is thinner and less dependable than it used to be.

Global warming is believed to result from pollutants emitted into the atmosphere, which trap the Earth's radiant heat and create a greenhouse effect. The warming is more dramatic in polar latitudes because cold air is dry, allowing greenhouse gases to trap more solar radiation. Even a modest rise in temperature can thaw the glaciers and permafrost that cover much of Alaska.

There is no question that global warming is having pronounced effects in Alaska, said Gunter Weller, director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research.

Average temperatures in Alaska are up about 5 degrees Fahrenheit from three decades ago, and about twice that during winter, said Weller, who also heads the Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the university.

That causes serious problems not only for rural Natives who live off the land but for major industries and for public structures, he said.

Most of Alaska's highways run over permafrost that is now rapidly thawing, meaning maintenance headaches for state officials. The thaw has already caused increased maintenance costs for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which uses special vertical supports for suspension over the tundra.

If the plight of Alaska Natives does not get politicians' attention, then the economic toll should, Weller said.

He cited the cost — estimated at over $100 million — of moving Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village on Alaska's northwestern coastline, to more stable ground. The village of 600 is on the verge of tumbling into the Bering Sea because of severe erosion resulting from thawed permafrost and the absence of sea ice to protect the coastline from high storm waves.

Along with Shishmaref, there are about 20 Alaska villages that are candidates for relocation because of severe erosion, with similar costs, Weller said.

Alaska's economy has already suffered from the permafrost thaw, said Robert Corell, chairman of the international Arctic Climate Impact Assessment committee.

The hard-frozen conditions needed to support ice roads around the North Slope oil fields now exist for only about 100 days a year, he pointed out. Thirty years ago, oil companies could use ice roads for about 200 days of the year, he said.

Source: Reuters



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