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Ref: Alaskan towns respond to change as infrastructure collapses

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Alaskan town seeks lifeline amid climate change


By William Yardley
Sunday, May 27, 2007

NEWTOK, Alaska: The sturdy little Cessnas land whenever the fog lifts, delivering children's bicycles, boxes of bullets, outboard motors and cans of dried oats. And then, with a rumble down a gravel strip, the planes are gone, the outside world recedes and this subarctic outpost steels itself once again to face the frontier of climate change.

"I don't want to live in permafrost no more," said Frank Tommy, 47, standing beside gutted geese and seal meat drying on a wooden rack outside his mother's house. "It's too muddy. Everything is crooked around here."

The earth beneath much of Alaska is not what it used to be. The permanently frozen subsoil, known as permafrost, upon which Newtok and so many other Native Alaskan villages rest, is melting, yielding to warming air temperatures and a warming ocean. Sea ice that would normally protect coastal villages is forming later in the year, allowing fall storms to pound away at the shoreline.

Erosion has made Newtok an island, caught between the ever-widening Ninglick River and a slough to the north. The village is below sea level, and sinking. Boardwalks squish into the spring muck. Human waste, collected in "honey buckets" that many residents use for toilets, is often dumped within eyeshot in a village where no point is more than a five-minute walk from any other. The ragged wooden houses have to be adjusted regularly to level them on the shifting soil.

Studies say Newtok could be washed away within a decade. Along with the villages of Shishmaref and Kivalina farther to the north, it has been the hardest hit of about 180 Alaska villages that suffer some degree of erosion.

Some villages plan to hunker down behind sea walls built or planned by the Army Corps of Engineers, at least for now. Others, like Newtok, have no choice but to abandon their patch of tundra. The corps has estimated that to move Newtok could cost $130 million because of its remoteness, climate and topography. That comes to almost $413,000 for each of the 315 residents.

Not that anyone is offering to pay.

After all, climate change is raising questions about how to deal with drought, wildfires, hurricanes and other threats that affect so many more people and involve large sums of money.

"We haven't sat down as a society and said, 'How are we going to adapt to this?' " said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University and a lead author of a recent report by a United Nations panel on the impact and vulnerability presented by climate change. "Just like we haven't sat down and said, 'How are we going to reduce emissions?' And both have to be done."

Amid the uncertainty, the residents of Newtok hear the skeptics, who question the price tag for moving such a small, seemingly inconsequential place. But residents emphasize that they are a federally recognized American Indian tribe, and they shudder when asked why they cannot just move to an existing village or a city like Fairbanks.

They say their identity is rooted in their isolation, however qualified it has become over the last century by outside influences. It was the government, they say, that insisted decades ago that they and so many other villages abandon their nomadic ways and pick a place to call home.

The current village site was once only a winter camp, and the people of Newtok say they are not to blame just because they are now among the first climate refugees in the United States.

"The federal government, they're the ones who came into our lives and took away some of our values," said Nick Tom Jr., 49, the former Newtok tribal administrator. "They came in and said, 'You aren't civilized. We're going to educate you.' That was hard for our grandparents."

Newtok's leaders say the corps' relocation estimates are inflated; that they intend to move piecemeal rather than in one collective migration, which they say will save money. But they say the government should pay, no matter the cost - if only there were a government agency charged with doing so. There is not a formal process by which a village can apply to the government to relocate.

"They grossly overestimate it, and that's why federal and state agencies are afraid to step in," said Stanley Tom, the current tribal administrator and the brother of Nick Tom Jr. "They don't want to spend that much money."

Still, Newtok has made far more progress toward moving than other villages, piecing together its move grant by grant.

Through a land swap with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it has secured a new site, on Nelson Island, nine miles, or about 14 kilometers, south. It is safe from the waves on a windy rise above the Ninglick River.

With the help of state agencies, it won a grant of about $1 million to build a barge landing at the new site. Bids are to go out this summer and construction could be complete next year, providing a platform to unload equipment for building roads, water and sewer systems, houses and a new landing strip.

There is no plan yet for how the village would move entire buildings, like the Newtok School, which is relatively new and serves the village's 125 children, preschool through high school.

So far, said Sally Russell Cox, a planner with the state division of community advocacy, "This is all on sticky notes."

Nearly any place would seem an improvement over Newtok as it exists today, and not all of its problems are rooted in climate change. Some are almost universal to Alaskan villages, which have struggled for decades to reconcile their culture of subsistence hunting and fishing with the expectations and temptations of the world outside.

Excrement dumped from honey buckets is piled on the banks of the slow-flowing Newtok River, not far from wooden shacks where residents take nightly steam baths. An elderly man drains kerosene into a puddle of snowmelt. Children pedal past a walrus skull left to rot, tusks intact, in the mud beside a boardwalk that serves as a main thoroughfare. There are no cars here, just snow machines, boats and all-terrain vehicles that tear up the tundra.

Village elders speak their native Yupik more often than they speak English. They remember when the village was a collection of families who moved with the seasons, making houses from sod, fishing from Nelson Island in the summer, hunting caribou far away in the winter. But, said Agnes Tommy, "It's getting hard to remember."

Many men still travel with the seasons to hunt and fish. Some will take boats into Bristol Bay this summer to catch salmon alongside commercial fishermen from out of state. But the waterproof jacket sewn from seal gut that Stanley Tom once wore is now stuffed inside a display case at Newtok School next to other relics.

Now Tom puts on a puffy parka to walk the few hundred feet he travels to work. He checks his e-mail messages while his brother, Nick, sketches out a budget proposal for a nonprofit corporation to help manage the relocation, presuming the money arrives.

Nick Tom said the move could bring jobs for young people who might otherwise be tempted to leave. Other young people talk only of the new village.

"They're going to move us to a mountain," said Annie Kassaiuli, 11, eating a burrito in the school cafeteria. "We can pick berries."

Notes:

Copyright © 2007 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

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