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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 June 2006, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
Shishmaref: The reporter's point of view
BBC correspondent Hilary Andersson

By BBC correspondent Hilary Andersson for Panorama

When you land in Shishmaref you feel like you have finally arrived at the end of the earth.

Located just 100 miles from Russia, it is a tiny, windswept island set on a vast expanse of sea ice that stretches are far you can see.

The island is just five miles long and half a mile wide. Here, on the fringes of north western Alaska, a community of 600 islanders eek out a living, braced against the biting Arctic cold.

It is hard to believe you are in America. The lifestyle here is a million miles, or to be precise 4271 miles, away from the political sophistication of Washington DC.  

To get here from London you first have to fly to Anchorage. Then it is a local flight to the frontier town of Nome, before finally taking a twin engine four-seater over the mountains to Shishmaref itself.

Alcohol is banned in Shishmaref and when we visited there was no water supply either. The pipes had frozen and no-one had managed to repair them.

People have lived here for 4,000 years but soon they will have to leave. They are about to become some of the first refugees of global warming.

Their houses are literally falling into the sea because the ice that normally protects them from the vicious winter storms in these remote parts is melting. So is the permafrost the houses are built on.

The island's people are planning to move twenty miles away onto the mainland but no-one knows for sure whether there they will still be able to practice the subsistence hunting of seals and caribou which has sustained their way of life.

A few days before we arrived there had been great excitement. A hungry female polar bear had wandered into town in the middle of the night in search of food. But the husky dogs who were her intended victims had started howling.

Their owner had rushed out with his rifle and shot the bear dead. By the time we got there the carcass had been stripped for meat, the bones had gone to the dogs and the hunter was planning to use the skin for a handsome outfit.

Such is life in Shishmaref and it has not changed much for thousands of years.

The people here feel let down by their national politicians in Washington who they feel could have done more to recognise the impact global warming is having on their lives.

But ever practical, they are negotiating hard to get the best deal they can out of the mess which is substantial funding to relocate on mass to the new village.

They are tough people and worldly enough to recognise that a visiting television crew highlighting their plight can be helpful to their cause.

Tony Weyiouanna, who is masterminding the exodus, obliged with an interview about how plans are going.

And as we walk away he turned with a knowing smile and adds, "I can shed a tear as well if you like."




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