Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Climate of Man: Welcome to The Anthropocene

Disappearing islands, thawing permafrost, melting polar ice. How the earth is changing.

The Alaskan village of Shishmaref sits on an island known as Sarichef, five miles off the coast of the Seward Peninsula. Sarichef is a small island—no more than a quarter of a mile across and two and a half miles long—and Shishmaref is basically the only thing on it. To the north is the Chukchi Sea, and in every other direction lies the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, which probably ranks as one of the least visited national parks in the country. During the last ice age, the land bridge—exposed by a drop in sea levels of more than three hundred feet—grew to be nearly a thousand miles wide. The preserve occupies that part of it which, after more than ten thousand years of warmth, still remains above water.

Shishmaref (pop. 591) is an Inupiat village, and it has been inhabited, at least on a seasonal basis, for several centuries. As in many native villages in Alaska, life there combines—often disconcertingly—the very ancient and the totally modern. Almost everyone in Shishmaref still lives off subsistence hunting, primarily for bearded seals but also for walrus, moose, rabbit, and migrating birds. When I visited the village one day last April, the spring thaw was under way, and the seal-hunting season was about to begin. (Wandering around, I almost tripped over the remnants of the previous year’s catch emerging from storage under the snow.) At noon, the village’s transportation planner, Tony Weyiouanna, invited me to his house for lunch. In the living room, an enormous television set tuned to the local public-access station was playing a rock soundtrack. Messages like “Happy Birthday to the following elders . . .” kept scrolling across the screen.

Traditionally, the men in Shishmaref hunted for seals by driving out over the sea ice with dogsleds or, more recently, on snowmobiles. After they hauled the seals back to the village, the women would skin and cure them, a process that takes several weeks. In the early nineteen-nineties, the hunters began to notice that the sea ice was changing. (Although the claim that the Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow is an exaggeration, the Inupiat make distinctions among many different types of ice, including sikuliaq, “young ice,” sarri, “pack ice,” and tuvaq, “landlocked ice.”) The ice was starting to form later in the fall, and also to break up earlier in the spring. Once, it had been possible to drive out twenty miles; now, by the time the seals arrived, the ice was mushy half that distance from shore. Weyiouanna described it as having the consistency of a “slush puppy.” When you encounter it, he said, “your hair starts sticking up. Your eyes are wide open. You can’t even blink.” It became too dangerous to hunt using snowmobiles, and the men switched to boats.

Soon, the changes in the sea ice brought other problems. At its highest point, Shishmaref is only twenty-two feet above sea level, and the houses, many built by the U.S. government, are small, boxy, and not particularly sturdy-looking. When the Chukchi Sea froze early, the layer of ice protected the village, the way a tarp prevents a swimming pool from getting roiled by the wind. When the sea started to freeze later, Shishmaref became more vulnerable to storm surges. A storm in October, 1997, scoured away a hundred-and-twenty-five-foot-wide strip from the town’s northern edge; several houses were destroyed, and more than a dozen had to be relocated. During another storm, in October, 2001, the village was threatened by twelve-foot waves. In the summer of 2002, residents of Shishmaref voted, a hundred and sixty-one to twenty, to move the entire village to the mainland. Last year, the federal government completed a survey of possible sites for a new village. Most of the spots that are being considered are in areas nearly as remote as Sarichef, with no roads or nearby cities, or even settlements. It is estimated that a full relocation will cost at least a hundred and eighty million dollars. (more)

Pt. II: The Curse of Akkad

Pt. III: What can be done?

Read ye believers and non-believers in climate change. Realize why I've lived in fear for the past 35 years, ever since I first encounted research indicating we were messing about with the world's climate. The latest data indicates that we have succeeded in changing the atmosphere well beyond our wildest dreams (or in my case nightmares). We may very well have passed the tipping point. Disaster preparedness may be our only option.

No comments: