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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 January 2007, 22:53 GMT
Alaska natives left out in the cold
Patricia Cochran
Patricia Cochran

While the rest of the world argues about the best way to curb future climate change, says Patricia Cochran in this week's Green Room, native communities within the Arctic Circle are having to draw on their own ancestral strengths to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

House about to fall into the sea (Image: ANSC)
Several coastal villages are now actively trying to figure out where to move entire communities
(Image: Alaska Native Science Commission)
A day after Christmas, the Anchorage Daily News ran an article about flooding and erosion in small native villages on the west coast of Alaska with names familiar to no one else except Alaskans.

But this is a very familiar story to us. With thinner sea ice arriving later and leaving earlier in the year, coastal communities are experiencing more intensified storms with larger waves than they have ever experienced.

This threat is being compounded by the loss of permafrost which has kept river banks from eroding too quickly.

The waves are larger because there is no sea ice to diminish their intensity, slamming against the west and northern shores of Alaska, causing severe storm driven coastal erosion.

It has become so serious that several coastal villages are now actively trying to figure out where to move entire communities.

While the world's politicians and media focus their attention on the big picture of agreeing the best way to curb global climate change, we are left to pick up the pieces from wasted years of inaction.

The cost to move one small village of 300 people ranges from $130m (66m) to a high of $200m (102m), even if the distance is a few miles, because moving means reconstructing entire water, electrical, road, airport and/or barge landing infrastructure, as well as schools and clinics.

Permafrost is melting all over Alaska as a result of rising temperatures, causing land underneath many villages to subside

From their actions, it is clear that neither the federal nor state governments are prepared for the immense cost and complexity of moving even one tiny community.

There is no lead government agency to assist communities affected by climate change events, and that is evident here in Alaska as small villages are left to take the initiative to mobilise support from a myriad government agencies to piece together some kind of incremental financial assistance.

Unlike the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina and large single storm events in major metropolitan areas of the continental US, northern coastal communities experience an insidious and gradual loss of land underneath their homes and businesses, for which there is only piecemeal assistance.

The sad fact is, according to the Army Corp of Engineers, that more than 80% of Alaskan communities (comprised mostly of indigenous peoples) are vulnerable to either coastal or river erosion.

Climate chain reaction

Natives have traditionally located their communities near water bodies for access to wild foods; so here is an example of the age-old Alaska native wisdom that "everything is connected":

Permafrost is melting all over Alaska as a result of rising temperatures, causing land underneath many villages to subside and softening the soil on riverbanks like the mighty Yukon River.

Mountain snow and ice melt rapidly, causing a short period when water levels in the rivers rise and move rapidly. The high, fast flowing water serves to wash away an unprecedented amount of riverbanks in villages.

The vast amount of soil taken into the river causes riverbeds to rise as eroded soil accumulates on the bottom.

River depths decrease to the point where many areas are so shallow that more and more salmon that are caught in subsistence fishing have lesions, cuts, and scrapes as they struggle to get through very shallow parts of the river.

The low levels that remain for the rest of the summer mean the water is warmer than in the past, causing further stress to the fish during the breeding season.

It may come to the stage that salmon numbers will dramatically decrease within the foreseeable future. This in turn will affect the food available for bears, land otters, eagles and people.

Fewer salmon carcasses taken inland and left near the rivers will decrease the fertility of land, water, and vegetation. Most "mainlanders" do not understand that we are talking about millions and millions of salmon taken by wildlife every year in Alaska, so the loss of salmon will have significant ecological impacts to land, water, wildlife and vegetation.

Behaviour change

Polar bear (Image: SPL)
What happens in Alaska will affect all other places of the world as a cascading effect

Significantly, diminished salmon numbers will lead to predators uncharacteristically concentrating on other prey, perhaps creating an imbalance and threatening the viability of the prey.

One can only imagine what decreased and changing vegetation will do to the land-based food chains.

All of this will have a profound impact on the viability of indigenous cultures throughout the North, and further afield. Everything is connected in nature; what happens in Alaska will affect all other places of the world as a cascading effect, as scientists call it, will occur.

Alaska Native Elders say we must prepare to adapt. This is a simple instruction but it is not so easy to understand what it really means.

Adapting means more than adjusting hunting technologies and what kind of food we eat. It means re-learning how to garner information from a rapidly changing environment. Even science is recognising the value of ancestral knowledge passed on to later generations of natives.

There is a reason native people have been able to survive for centuries in the harshest of conditions, in the strangest of times; it is because of our resilience and our adaptability.

And it is that strength from within that our communities now have to rely upon as we face an uncertain future.

Patricia Cochran is executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, and chairwoman of the Inuit Circumpolar Council

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

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