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Wednesday, 15 November, 2000, 17:01 GMT
Alaskans face the thaw
Shishmaref lies perilously close to the sea
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 -10C 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.

Heating up

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.

Herbert Nayokpuk is affected by the rising temperatures
Herbert Nayokpuk: The thaw stops his traditional hunting

"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 us."

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.

Vicious cycle

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."

Fleeing the rising seas

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 the sea.

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.

Young Alaskans face an uncertain future
A warmer but uncertain future for young Alaskans

"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.


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