New Internationalist

Alaska’s global warning

Issue 336

Highways buckle as the permafrost melts

Wilson Sam crouches in his hide, shotgun at the ready. Every few minutes, flocks of cackling geese fly overhead – close, but just out of range. Disappointed, he stands up, stretches and points to the grass and bushes around the hide. ‘See all this area – this used to be a big lake. That’s what made it a good geese-hunting spot, with all the water. Now it’s not good any more, because the lake’s all dried up. Now it’s all just rough grass and willows, and the geese don’t like that.’

An Athabascan Indian elder from the interior of Alaska, Wilson has seen a lot of weather changes in recent years – which, according to scientists at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, are almost certainly early signs of global warming. The state has warmed by an average of 2°C since the 1950s and a massive 4°C in the interior during the winter months. Mountain glaciers are melting at an unprecedented rate and many of the southernmost spruce forests are dying because of a plague of bark beetles driven on by the rising temperatures.

Around Fairbanks, Alaska’s second city, roads are buckling and cracking as the frozen ground beneath them gives way. On one street all the houses lean at crazy angles because the permafrost they are built on is melting. Inside one of them, Vicki Heiker and her daughter Jessica have got used to living on a slope. ‘In my room all the furniture has to go at one end or it’ll fall down.’ She laughs and shows the living room: ‘The bookshelf over there is supported by the couch. See those glass ornaments? One leg of the table is supported by a book, the other by some wood, the other two are on the floor. If it wasn’t like that they’d all crash off.’ Jessica puts a tennis ball at one end of the room and it rolls towards the door, gathering speed as it moves. ‘And when you spill something you’ve got to clear it up fast or it’ll get away from you,’ she smiles. But things are getting steadily worse. Extending outwards from the kitchen window is a large crack. Several houses have already been demolished, and Vicki’s could be next.

A similar threat from a different source faces the residents of Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village in western Alaska, which is built on a low barrier island facing the Bering Sea. Robert Iyatunguk knows the danger better than anyone. He’s erosion co-ordinator for the village and has watched it get steadily eaten away by the sea. He says the problem is two-fold: at the same time as global warming has triggered stronger storms and higher winds, the sea ice which usually protects the coast in winter has been forming later and later – leaving the island’s sandy base increasingly vulnerable. During the last emergency, in 1997, nine homes had to be moved at the height of the storm. Four more were lost over the cliff. ‘We’re in imminent danger here,’ he says as he inspects the crumbling bluffs on which one house now sits precariously. ‘Every year the waters are getting higher and higher, and if we get another big storm this place is going to be wiped out in a matter of hours.’

Back at his home in the tiny native village of Huslia, Wilson Sam sits in his kitchen and ponders on the meaning of the changes. His house is modern, with running water and electricity, but hunting still provides most of the family’s food. ‘Back when we were kids, it was cold – really cold. It was worse than 60 or 70 below, and it lasted for days sometimes. In them days it was so cold that you can’t use the clothes we have nowadays, you had to have fur coats. And now we didn’t hardly see 40 below all winter. Maybe one day, but the rest of it was 20 or 25 below. That’s a big change.’

Wilson’s wife Eleanor remembers something, and looks up from the goose she is plucking. ‘My old grandpa, before he died, he made a prophecy in the Indian language. He said that it was going to change, that the cold weather is getting old. He said the cold weather’s going outside.’ She looks outside at the bright sunshine, where the snowmelt lies in puddles on their yard.

Mark Lynas

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