Sunday, May 19, 2013

Alaska village an early casualty of climate change

The Guardian reported this week from Newtok, Alaska, a mostly Yup'ik Eskimo village of about 350, surrounded on three sides by the Ninglick River, on the state's west coast.  Suzanne Goldenberg came to Newtok to do this story because scientists predict the village will soon be flooded due to rising sea level attributable to climate change.  Goldenberg calls Newtok's residents "America's first climate refugees" because their village could be underwater in as little as four years.  Here's an excerpt:
The people of Newtok ... are living a slow-motion disaster that will end, very possibly within the next five years, with the entire village being washed away. 
The Ninglick River ... has steadily been eating away at the land, carrying off 100ft or more some years, in a process moving at unusual speed because of climate change. Eventually all of the villagers will have to leave. 
* * * 
It is not a ... future embraced by people living in Newtok. Yup'ik Eskimo have been fishing and hunting by the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries and the villagers reject the notion they will now be forced to run in chaos from ancestral lands. 
But exile is undeniable. 
A report by the US Army Corps of Engineers found "no possible way to protect the village in place."  A new site nine miles away has been selected for the village.  Ironically, Newtok is a creature of Alaska's statehood.  In 1959, state authorities "ordered villagers to move to a more convenient docking point" for delivery of supplies, and that became Newtok.  Needles to say, the locale was not chosen with a view to climate change.      

NPR picked up the Goldenberg story, including its attachment-to-place theme.  NPR quotes resident Tom John:
"I'd rather stay here, where I grew up.  I love Newtok, you know. I don't want to move to somewhere else."
NPR's story continues with excerpts from an interview with Goldenberg:  
The Yupik Eskimos who live there are intimately connected to the land, Goldenberg says, where they've fished and hunted for centuries. All that time they have built a culture and tradition that comes from depending on each other in a harsh environment.
But changes in the climate have meant changes also to those centuries-old routines, according to some of the village's residents, who spoke with Goldenberg and her videographer Richard Sprenger. 
"The snow comes in a different time now. The snow disappears way late," says villager Nathan Tom. "That's making the geese come at the wrong time. Now they're starting to lay eggs when there's still snow and ice. We can't even travel and go pick them. It's getting harder. It's changing a lot."
* * *  
There are also the financial considerations. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has estimated that the cost of moving Newtok — with 63 homes — might reach $130 million. The people of Newtok do not have that kind of money, Goldenberg says. 
"These people are living well below the average income of other Americans. They're able to live that way because they hunt and fish for what they eat," she says. "So they can't all of a sudden go and build and pay for new houses on the other side."
And Newtok is hardly a unique case.  Climate change is presenting similar challenges to 180 Alaska native villages.  

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