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From Palin to Parnell, the Great Alaska Climate Fail

State politicians have failed to act even as towns like Newtok face disaster.

| Thu May 30, 2013 5:02 AM EDT

The river has been clawing away at the land, reducing Newtok into a small, and shrinking, island. The villagers are desperately trying to move to a new site, nine miles to the south, before the entire village is engulfed.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the highest point in the village—the school—could be under water by 2017.

The village where John has lived since he was a boy could disappear. His way of life, a subsistence economy which survived the arrival of snowmobiles, food stamps, and online shopping at Walmart, was also threatened.

The migration habits of the animals and fish on which the John family and others depend have changed over time. Some of the animals are scarce now on the Bering coast.

Seals of all variety are still plentiful off the Bering Sea. Outside one house in Newtok, the bodies of seven seal are stacked up behind a snowmobile like frozen firewood.

But walrus have grown hard to find. "Twenty years ago, I could see walrus, and hardly see the end of them. There were lots of them, thousands, but today I don't see that any more," said John.

Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the country, with a nearly 4F increase in average statewide temperatures since 1949, according to the US National Climate Assessment draft released last January. Temperatures could rise by up to 22F by the end of the century unless there is bold action on climate change, the report said.

On land, the glaciers are melting, and at a faster rate than ever recorded. Land that had been shored up by frozen layers of permafrost has softened and sunk. The first snow now arrives on average two days later than it did a decade ago, and melts four to six days earlier in the spring. Rivers swollen by heavier rain and snow flood more often.

At sea, the summer sea ice has melted and thinned, leaving open waters. Last year saw the biggest loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic since satellite tracking began in the 1970s. At the height of summer, less than a quarter of the Arctic was under ice.

As the ice gives way, scientists have steadily been revising their estimates of when the Arctic would be entirely ice-free. Only a few years ago, most scientists put that date off until mid-century or beyond. Not any more—scientists are now converging around a date of 2030 for an entirely ice-free Arctic in the summer. A few outliers have even suggested an almost ice-free Arctic in the summer as early as 2020.

The Arctic will still freeze over every winter, long after the summer sea ice is gone. "I don't think we can expect a year-round ice-free Arctic anytime soon," said Prof Wieslaw Maslowski, an oceanographer at the US naval postgraduate school in Monterey, California.

But the remaining ice will be thinner, 2m or less, compared with the older ice layers that extend up to 4m deep. After several years of record melts, barely 5% of the ice in the Arctic has lasted for four or more summers, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado. The remaining ice, which is thinner, is more susceptible to melting.

The retreat of that ice has left large areas of coastline far more exposed to storms. Those shorelines no longer have ice barriers to blunt the impact of storm surges. And the larger areas of open water produce bigger waves.

Those changes have invaded native Alaskan villages as well. Flood waters engulf village boardwalks during spring break-up. Extreme storms make it unsafe to go out hunting or trapping. Nobody feels safe or secure.

And then there is the erosion that has made life so precarious in so many native Alaskan villages. Coastal erosion rates in the Arctic are among the highest in the world, because of increased wave action from the Bering Sea.

In some areas, erosion rates have doubled since the early 2000s, according to a report prepared by the Department of Interior last month.

"The truth is that almost all of our communities will at some point or at some period of time experience some problems associated with climate change," said Patricia Cochran, director of the Alaska Native Science Commission. "We are the first populations that are really seeing the immense changes that are occurring."

"It certainly takes a toll … It's in your face every day and it's not something you can run away from," she said.

Since the time Alaska's governor decided the state no longer needed to plan for climate change, Bernice and Tom John have lived through two spring floods and two ferocious autumn storm season.

Their house, which sits relatively far from the Ninglick River, has had water lapping at the door.

In that time, Newtok has lost sewage lagoons and its water supply, which was contaminated by salt water and sewage. Boardwalks have sunk into the mud, because of melting permafrost.

A few families have scrapped their traditional ice cellars, buried in the permafrost after melting made them unreliable as food stores. And the Johns watched the Ninglick river rip the land out from under them.

The couple hope the authorities, and their own village leadership, mobilise in time to complete Newtok's move to the new village site at Mertarvik before it is too late.

Bernice has heard people talking; if the village does not move to the new site in time, the villagers will be moved to Fairbanks, hundreds of miles away.

The idea scares her. "That's unknown territory," she said. But whatever lies in store for Newtok, it won't be long now, Bernice figures. "We've got about two years, that's what I think," she said. "Two years."

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