Rising waters threaten the village of Shishmaref.
As ministers gather in the Hague to discuss climate change,
environment correspondent Robert Piggot visits West Alaska
It's -10°C in Shishmaref, an Eskimo village on the edge of the Arctic
circle, but that's warm for the time of year. Beyond the beach the narrow
strip of water dividing Alaska from Siberia remains unusually free of ice.
The average temperature in Alaska is rising almost 10 times faster than
the world average, blighting both the landscape and ecosystems of America's
largest state. But for Shishmaref's 600 Inupiaq people, it means the
abandonment of their village.
The once-permanently frozen ground that used to reinforce this coast is
thawing. Climate change has also brought a higher sea level and more
destructive storms. The
result is that the narrow island on which Shishmaref stands is being
rapidly eroded. Each house strong enough to survive the process will be
physically moved to a new site, further away from the sea.
Percy Nayokpuk is a village elder, who runs the village store.
He's watched as one end of the village has been eaten away. Another five
feet disappeared in a single storm last month. His store, and its
collection of fuel tanks
stand next in the path of the resurgent sea.
For more than a decade the Arctic tundra surrounding Shishmaref has been
warming. The thaw threatens not only the village's buildings, but also its
people's fragile way of life. Herbert
Nayokpuk, who is 71, has hunted animals like moose and caribou for a living
for all his adult life. By early November hunters should be travelling over
the ice with teams of huskies, or fishing in local rivers but he has noticed
that each year they are having to wait longer.
"In my younger days we would normally have been out over the ice
covering the inlet" says Mr Nayokpuk. "Now there's nothing but
water back there. I think the climate is becoming warmer, all around
Almost all Alaska is covered by a layer of permanently frozen ground. But
this permafrost is thawing in the higher temperatures, steadily destroying
millions of acres of spruce and birch trees, and with it the habitat for much
of the state's wildlife. Scientists
from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks are working in the wide Tanana
Valley in the centre of Alaska, where the forest is turning into a watery
fenland. The valley was once covered with birch trees. If the warmer climate
persists, they are all expected to be dead by the end of the century, unable
to survive in standing water.
It's not only Alaska's huge forests that are drowning in the swamps
created by this great thaw. Forests on once permanently-frozen ground across
vast tracts of Russia, Canada and Northern Europe are also in jeopardy.
Dr Glenn Juday, a forest specialist with the University of Alaska in
Fairbanks, says that as the forests die, they are feeding the process of
global warming in a terrible vicious cycle.
Rotting trees are producing millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide, and
of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases of all.
"The great forests of the north are a storehouse of carbon",
says Dr Juday, "and the warmer weather causes them to give off carbon
dioxide and methane. Those are contributing to the warming itself. It's a
positive feedback mechanism - the more it warms the more these processes are
putting these gases back into the atmosphere."
Surface ice is disappearing even faster than the permafrost. On average
Alaskan glaciers have been losing 15% of their length every decade. Many have
lost almost half their thickness and some are in rapid retreat, melting far
more quickly than they can form new ice. Water locked up for centuries in
glaciers and ice caps is being added, drop by drop, to the rising level of
In Shishmaref, isolated in the tundra on the very edge of North America,
it means the abandonment of a village inhabited for more than 4,000 years.
Thirteen houses have already had to be moved from the sea cliff. The US army
will jack the houses up on sleds and drag the other buildings five miles away
to safer ground. Some in the village are reluctant to leave, but a young
mother, Mina Nayokpuk, is keen to make a start on the evacuation.
"It's been a lot warmer than how it usually was, and we need to
go where it's safe" she says, watching three of her children building an
igloo out of compacted snow. "I feel for my children, they need to go
where it's safe and continue their education and careers."
Some in Shishmaref see the abandonment of their village as a lesson in the
folly of adding so recklessly to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So far
this is one of only two American villages which must be sacrificed to the
increasingly brutal climate.
But if, over the next two weeks, the Hague Conference does not find a way
to curb the burning of fossil fuels, myriad other communities in much poorer
countries are likely to go the same way.