A harsh new reality transforms the Arctic

Dramatic climate changes in the Arctic are sending an unmistakable signal that global warming is advancing much more rapidly on Earth than scientists thought. Many now say that the time to deal with the crisis is rapidly running short.

The Arctic, which plays a vital role in keeping the Earth cool, is having trouble keeping its own cool. Scientists have assembled a mountain of incontrovertible evidence that warming is fundamentally, rapidly changing the Arctic, none clearer than the retreat of its late-summer sea ice, triggered by air temperatures that have been rising at twice the rate as the rest of the planet. And the retreat is accelerating.

Until recently, climate models published by the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have predicted a complete retreat of the late- summer sea ice by the end of this century. But the IPCC’s models may need drastic revision, as a number of scientists now think the ice could disappear as soon as the next decade. Species that depend on the ice for their subsistence and survival — including humans, polar bears, walruses and ice seals — are facing significant disruptions in their lives.

As ice pack retreats, stressed out wildlife and humans must also adapt to another significant development in the Arctic — a gold rush by industry that is likely to include offshore oil and gas drilling, circumpolar shipping and commercial fishing made possible by ice-free conditions. This combination of climate change and industrialization, with its human intrusions and likely oil and chemical spills, would compound the injury, posing a double jeopardy for the people and wildlife of the Arctic. Taken alone, any of these changes would add substantial stress to Arctic ecosystems. But many are likely to be concurrent, and could have synergistic effects on the health of the ecosystem and opportunities for the subsistence way of life.

Ten years ago, scientists were just beginning to document the warming of the Arctic. Today thousands of scientists are making significant progress toward understanding how and why the Arctic Meltdown is occurring, and are making predictions about what to expect next. To their amazement, they are witnessing right before their eyes the kinds of changes that typically take millions of years to play out.

These changes could not escape the attention of the Bush administration, which before its departure from office abandoned a rigid ideological point of view and joined the investigation, although positive action that might stop the warming did not happen under President Bush. Scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency were stifled by an administration that routinely censored information about global warming. Nearly half the 279 climate scientists who responded to a Union of Concerned Scientists survey in 2007 reported being pressured to delete references to “global warming” or “climate change” from scientific papers or reports. Many said they were prevented from talking to the media, or had their work edited.

But now, at these and other federal agencies, such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, government scientists are among world leaders in climate change research, and are no longer reluctant to speak out. “There continues to be widespread and, in some cases, dramatic evidence of an overall warming of the Arctic system,” said NOAA in its third annual “Arctic Report Card” released in October 2008, a synthesis of hundreds of peer-reviewed papers published since 2000, including dozens of papers from just the last year.

Scientists have also been strengthening their critical finding that human activities are behind the changes in the global climate. New evidence shows specifically that emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are behind warming in both the Arctic and Antarctic.

But there are still global warming skeptics who dispute evidence of global warming. In December 2008, Senate Republicans, led by Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, issued a 231-page report signed by 650 scientists, claiming that the global warming theories are melting, not ice at the North Pole.

Bolstered by the unusually cold winter of 2008-09, these skeptics pointed out that the Arctic sea ice had quickly refrozen by December 2008. But their report failed to acknowledge that even in this unusually cold winter, the Arctic was still covered with far less ice than the normal amount for that time of year. The average Arctic sea ice extent in December was 320,000 square miles less than the 1979-2000 average.

For the most part, the refreezing of the Arctic’s ice pack has not been unusual. However, from December 12 to 19 there was almost no increase in ice. This week-long pause in freezing is unprecedented in recent years, and may forebode even more rapid melting next summer, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Skeptics have also claimed, incorrectly, that the sea ice covered more ocean in 2008 than in 2007, saying the sea ice had “recovered” in just 12 months from the all-time low. (The ice covered more square miles of ocean, but it was thinner, containing less volume.)

Said Dr. Mark Serreze, a senior scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center: “When you look at the sharp decline that we’ve seen over the past thirty years, a ‘recovery’ from lowest to second lowest is no recovery at all.”

In media reports that go back at least a decade, many of the 4 million people who live in the Arctic have talked about how their lives have been impacted by the sea ice retreat. One common observation among those who use the sea ice as a platform for hunting say it is much thinner now and they are increasingly wary of falling through to their death.

The Inhofe report also scoffed at the highly publicized dangers faced by one of the Arctic’s most visible species, the polar bear.

Recent USGS research says continuing sea ice declines will wipe out polar bears across much of their range. With the ice in the Beaufort Sea north of the Alaska coastline receding far to the north during late summer, increasing numbers of polar bears are being forced to swim hundreds of miles to shore, where land and water are being polluted Alaska’s North Slope oil development, with more such development on the way.

Some polar bears are fleeing the sea ice altogether as a site for building maternal dens. The proportion of maternal polar bear dens on the ice declined from 62 percent in 1985-1994 to 37 percent in 1998-2000, while the number of dens on or near the shore has increased by similar proportions.

Climate change has “reduced the availability and quality of sea ice denning habitat,” the USGS said in 2007. “Further declines in sea ice availability are predicted. Therefore, we expect the proportion of polar bears denning in coastal areas will continue to increase, until such time as the autumn ice retreats far enough from shore that it precludes offshore pregnant females from reaching the Alaska coast in advance of denning.”

In Hudson Bay, Canada, studies show that the loss of sea ice is forcing polar bears to come to shore sooner than normal, weighing less, in declining physical condition, and their populations in decline. In May 2008, based on this and other indisputable evidence, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed polar bears as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

But the Inhofe report glossed over the depth of the evidence regarding the polar bear’s dire condition. “The alarm about the future of polar bear decline is based on speculative computer model predictions many decades in the future,” it said. The report was also silent on the cumulative hazards that are being posed by the combination of climate change and oil development.

The Inhofe report made no mention of the travails of the Pacific walrus, whose reaction to global warming and the disappearance of sea ice has paralleled the behavior of the polar bear. The walrus has begun to flee the ocean and its abundance of food and haul out on shore, where there is next to nothing to eat and other dangers await.

In 2007, many walruses died during their attempt to reach land. Thousands more of these easily spooked walruses died in massive stampedes on Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula

As the rest of the world debates what to do about global warming, polar bears, walruses, and other species in the Arctic have become innocent victims. Even humans have been caught in the crossfire.

“We’re all in the same boat,” said Keith Addis, Chairman of Oceana’s Board of Directors. “Whether you live in northern Alaska or southern California, we all have a stake in the enormous impacts climate change is already having on the Arctic. Quite simply, as goes the Arctic, so goes the planet.” The ice detectives Much of the investigation of climate change in the Arctic has been conducted by U.S. federal agencies or with federal funding, including USGS, NOAA, NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center, a small group of scientists that is closely documenting the accelerating pace of melting in the Arctic.

For these agencies and many other institutions around the world, the Arctic has become a massive laboratory for the study of global warming and its impacts on life on Earth.

The series of microwave images from polar-orbiting satellites on Page 3 illustrates the annual sea ice retreat since 1979, the year of the first consistent satellite data. This 30-year satellite record may seem skimpy, but the record is much fuller when one takes into account the substantial amount of additional peer-reviewed published research, as well as the vast troves of traditional knowledge held by indigenous people.

These images show that the area covered by ice in 2007 was less than the previous record low set in 2005 by 460,000 square miles — an area larger than the size of Texas plus California and West Virginia, with room left over for Delaware and Rhode Island. The 2007 low was 24 percent smaller than 2005; 39 percent less than the long-term trend from 1979 to 2000; and 50 percent less than conditions prevailing from the 1950s to the 1970s, NSIDC has reported.

The rate of melting has accelerated since 2000. The Arctic Ocean is losing its late-summer sea ice at a rate of

11.7 percent per decade, compared to a rate of about 2-3 percent per decade in the 1990s — facts that are also absent from the Inhofe report.

In some areas, such as the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia, the retreat is moving much faster. Ice in the Chukchi has been declining at a rate of greater than 26 percent per decade. After checking historic submarine logs, scientists are also reporting that the sea ice has thinned at the pole by as much as 40 percent in the last three decades.

After the record-setting 2007, scientists at NSIDC kept their eyes keenly focused on the 2008 melt season in the Arctic. As summer progressed into August, a race developed between the melting of the ice and the gradually waning sunlight.

The Arctic Ocean lost more ice in August 2008 than any previous August in the satellite record. For the second year in a row, travel was possible on the Northwest Passage, a route that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans via the Bering Strait, the Chukchi Sea, the Beaufort Sea and the Canadian Archipelago. Typically, this route has been impassable year around because of sea ice. At the same time, the Northern Sea Route, a shipping lane that connects the Atlantic and Pacific along the Russian and Siberian coasts, was also open. The Independent newspaper in London marveled that for the first time in “at least 125,000 years,” it was possible to circumnavigate the North Pole.

By the end of September 2008, weather conditions had failed to melt enough sea ice to beat the 2007 record. NSIDC scientists said the weather in 2008 was not warm enough to repeat the ice loss seen in 2007, although it was still significantly warmer than average. Some first-year ice did not melt, and the thinning ice pack did not shrink enough to allow the sunlight to heat the ocean enough to melt it all. Cloudy skies also prevented some of the ice from melting, and wind patterns spread the ice pack out so that it covered a larger area, NSIDC scientists said.

Nevertheless, over much of the Arctic, air temperatures in 2008 continued the unusual warming trend seen over the previous decade. Near-surface air temperatures in the Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska were more than 7º C above normal and the warming extended high into the atmosphere, according to NSIDC. The Arctic air exceeded the average autumn temperature between 2005 to 2007, which already had been about 5º C above normal.

Surface temperatures in the Arctic Ocean were the highest in 77 years of record keeping.

Walt Meier, an NSIDC research scientist, said 2008 represents the lowest volume of Arctic sea ice on record, “partly because less multiyear ice is surviving now, and the remaining ice is so thin.”

Scientists found that as larger expanses of the Arctic ocean are without ice at the end of each summer, the ocean will continue to hand off heat to the atmosphere long after darkness sets in — which in the Arctic lasts for months. This is why the Arctic atmosphere can continue to warm in October and November.

This warming, known as “Arctic Amplification,” will become more prominent in coming decades and extend further into the winter season, according to a paper by Dr. Julienne Stroeve and Dr. Serreze, both of the NSIDC, in the scientific journal Cryosphere.

“The strongest Arctic warming will actually be in autumn and winter over the ocean, when there is essentially no sun,” Dr. Serreze says. “This is explained in that warming leads to a longer and stronger summer melt season and hence less sea ice. With less sea ice, the dark ocean picks up more heat through summer. As the sun sets in autumn, the ocean then releases this heat back to the atmosphere, acting to warm it. The effect can persist through much of the winter.”

Areas in the Arctic Ocean that lack ice covering can absorb a great deal more heat from the sun than areas with ice. The ocean can store heat longer than the atmosphere. Dr. Serreze says the chain of events that amplify the warming is triggered by what is known as the albedo feedback. Albedo is a measure of how white, or reflective, a surface is. Ice reflects almost all of the light that strikes it; water reflects very little. The albedo feedback is built into all climate model projections.

Dr. Stroeve said the warmest air temperatures in the Arctic are located directly over those areas where the ocean lost all its ice cover.

“The sea ice is entering a new state where the ice cover has become so thin that no matter what happens during the summer in terms of temperature or circulation patterns, you’re still going to have very low ice conditions,” she said at the American Geophysical Union annual conference in San Francisco in December 2008.

She said she does not know how this is going to play out. “Our research is in its infancy.”

Said Dr. Stroeve, “I find it incredible that we came so close (in 2008) to beating the 2007 record, without the especially warm and clear conditions we saw last summer. I hate to think what 2008 might have looked like if weather patterns had set up in a more extreme way.”

Most thinning has occurred near the center of the polar ice cap, where the ice is much younger than it used to be. Now very little ice is older than 5 years.

The implications for the entire planet, said Dr. Serreze, “are enormous.“

“Will we have an ice-free summer by 2030?” Dr. Serreze asked. “Perhaps even earlier? We’ll see. I think that is quite possible. We’ve already set ourselves up for low ice next year. NSIDC will be giving blow-by-blow reports. We’re going to be well below average (in sea ice coverage). I guarantee it.”

Climate models developed in 2007 by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted the sea ice would disappear around mid-century. But now scientists say the summer sea ice could be gone in the next decade. Dr. H. Jay Zwally, a polar ice scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has predicted an ice-free Arctic as soon as 2012. Wieslaw Maslowski, a professor with the Naval Postgraduate School’s Oceanography Department, in Monterey, Calif., says the ice-free date could arrive by 2013. Others peg the date at around 2030. Some speculate the sea ice has passed a tipping point, with no going back to the days of extensive sea ice all summer long.

“Taken together, these changes suggest that the Arctic Ocean is approaching a point where a return to pre-1990s ice conditions becomes increasingly difficult and where the large, abrupt changes in summer ice cover seen in 2007 may become the norm,” NSIDC researchers wrote in the journal Geophysical Research Letters in January 2008.

In October 2008, a team of researchers led by Dr. Xiangdong Zhang at the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced that recent global air circulation patterns have shifted dramatically in ways that may make the climate changes even more permanent. Starting around 2000, these patterns have been sending massive amounts of warm air from the equator northward into the Arctic. Dr. Xiangdong said these unusual patterns might help explain the rapid warming in the Arctic.

“Our study found a systematic, rapid spatial change in atmospheric circulations,” he said in an email to Cascadia Times. “This augments existing evidence of Arctic climate change and may provide some clues to understand whether the Arctic climate system has passed the tipping point to transition to a different (warmer and seasonally ice-free) state.”

Despite all the breathtaking new research on climate change in the Arctic, it is hardly surprising that some people are still confused about climate change.

“Well, we’re the only Arctic state, of course, Alaska,” said Gov. Sarah Palin, last fall during her campaign for vice president. In an interview with Katie Couric of CBS, Palin said, “We feel the impacts more than any other state, up there with the changes in climates. And certainly, it is apparent. We have erosion issues. And we have melting sea ice, of course. You know there are — there are man’s activities that can be contributed to the issues that we’re dealing with now, these impacts. I’m not going to solely blame all of man’s activities on changes in climate.”

And the blog American Thinker trumpeted an unusual explanation for the changes in the Arctic: “The Arctic ice that is supposedly melting, stranding those cuddly looking polar bears, just might be affected by a wave of volcanic eruptions on the ocean floor under the Arctic ice cap.”

Other global warming skeptics seized on the 2008 winter cold spell as evidence that global warming is just a hoax. Said skeptic Christopher Booker, writing in the London Telegraph, 2008 is “the year global warming was disproved. The poles remained defiantly icebound and those polar bears failed to drown.”

Skeptics like Booker may be making the mistake of confusing a change in the weather with a change in climate.

One unusually cold winter does not mean the climate is changing. But 50 unusually warm years might mean that it is. Abrupt climate change ahead The receding sea ice may provide the most dramatic evidence that the climate is changing in the Arctic, but there’s much more to the story.

The Arctic’s coastal shorelines and bluffs, which are becoming the preferred winter denning areas for most pregnant polar bears, are eroding, often dramatically. When the ice cover is reduced in late summer, the available open-water surface area increases, and waves are able to grow in height and force as they collide with the shore.

Rain has increased substantially across much of the Arctic. Rivers are running faster, carrying more freshwater to the Arctic Ocean, adding an extra measure of warmth to the melting sea.

Ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, and glaciers throughout the world, are melting. The sea water is expanding as it warms, and as a result, forcing sea levels to rise. The Arctic Ocean is rising at a rate of about 2.61 millimeters per year — about 35 percent greater than the global rise of 1.94 millimeters per year forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Arctic seas have risen twice as quickly in the last 15 years than in the previous 50, and at the current rate of warming, will likely rise at least another two feet by 2100, according to IPCC models.

Across the Arctic, the permafrost (permanently frozen ground) has warmed by as much as 4º C in the last century — with about half of that increase occurring in the last 25 years. Melting the permafrost will release of large quantities of ancient stored carbon dioxide and methane, the greenhouse gases that are forcing temperatures in the atmosphere to rise.

Though there are only small quantities of methane in the atmosphere, there are vast reservoirs of it in the permafrost zone. Methane is 60 times more efficient as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and a large release of it could result in an abrupt and significant rise in global temperatures, according to the Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment. These greenhouse gas releases have not yet been taken into account in most climate models.

The permafrost under the Arctic Ocean is already releasing methane, as was reported in 2008 by the International Siberian Shelf Study, an international research expedition including participants from Russia, Sweden, the United States and other nations.

This study gathered more than 1,000 measurements of dissolved methane in the surface water from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Methane bubbles are emerging from what were described as “chimneys” on the seafloor.

One of the researchers, Igor Semiletov, an Arctic Research Center scientist, announced the discovery of several new areas on the Continental Shelf north of Russia where substantial methane seeps are occurring. At the American Geophysical Union conference, he said, “The concentrations of the methane were the highest ever measured in the summertime in the Arctic Ocean.”

An astonishing new report entitled “Abrupt Climate Change,” published in December 2008 by the U.S. Geological Survey, cites new data that shows the IPCC models may have “substantially” underestimated the speed of melting in Greenland, which is covered by the globe’s second largest terrestrial ice sheet.

The USGS found that Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing ice at the rate of 48 cubic miles per year, a pace that has been “accelerating since the mid-1990s.” More melting of the Greenland ice sheet than ever is now occurring at higher elevations.

Because these ice sheets are located on land, sea levels rise when they melt (melting of sea ice has little impact on sea levels). If Greenland’s entire ice sheet melted, sea levels would rise about 7.2 meters or 23 feet, enough to inundate coastal cities from London to Los Angeles, and sink island nations from the Maldives to the Marshalls. Such a large sea level rise is not likely in the next hundred years, although a sea level rise of 2 feet is possible, according to the latest report of the IPCC in 2007.

In addition, small glaciers around the world are losing about 400 gigatons of ice per year, which results in a yearly rise of nearly 1.1 millimeters in the sea level.

In the past, climate scientists have said they lacked conclusive proof that the melting in the Arctic and Antarctic is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil. Now they have that evidence. In October 2008, a team of British climate experts said they have demonstrated that humans are to blame for the warming now seen in the Arctic, and to a lesser extent, in the Antarctic, according to their paper published in the Oct. 30, 2008, issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

The British scientists examined 100 years of existing temperature records from the Arctic and 50 years of records from Antarctica. They compared these patterns to computer simulations, and found that the Arctic and Antarctic warming cannot be explained by natural influences alone, but is caused at least in part by human activity — “mainly pumping out greenhouse gases,” said lead researcher Dr. Nathan Gillett.

Gillett said in an email to Cascadia Times that the influence of human activities can be seen despite the limited data. “We compared observed temperature changes in both polar regions with climate model simulations of the response to natural climate influence —solar variations and volcanic eruptions. We find that natural influences cannot explain the warming observed in either the Arctic or the Antarctic. We tested the variability in the models and find that it is realistic.”

“I think the results are convincing,” Gillett adds, “but I won’t comment on whether the skeptics will be convinced.”

Researchers Dr. Andrew Monaghan of the National Center of Environmental Research and Dr. David Bromwich, of Ohio State University, writing in the same issue of Nature Geoscience, confirmed the conclusions. They said that Gillett and his team demonstrated “convincingly what previous studies have suggested — that humans have indeed contributed to warming in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.” Lives of indigenous peoples profoundly changed For many of the 4 million people who live in the Arctic, subsistence is not just a tradition or alternative lifestyle. It is survival.

Jose A. Kusugak, former president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national voice of Canada’s Inuit, says in an Inuit study, Unikkaaqatigiit: Putting the human face on climate change, “Our millennia-old traditions are already being altered because of the warming Arctic, and we face the possibility of having to completely reinvent what it means to be Inuit. This is a prospect that we fear.”

Dr. Maribeth Murray, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and who is conducting research in an Alaska coastal village, has found that the receding sea ice has made life much more difficult for subsistence hunters and their families.

Because the ice has thinned, Murray said, travel is less safe than in the past and hunters must now travel longer distances. They are reporting fewer successful hunts. As a result, fuel costs are greater and meat spoils more often. People say they are more dependent on imported food of lower quality, which contain more fats, cholesterol and sugar. Consequently, they are suffering poorer health. People are leaving the villages.

Norm Anderson, a Native Alaskan resident of Bristol Bay, said in an interview with Cascadia Times:

“Over the years a growing dependency on store-bought produced foods has seen a increase in high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease. Obesity has increased as well, as the subsistence lifestyle has eroded. Subsistence gathering is not only the practice of gathering but a daily exercise regimen as well. The tundra isn’t freezing like is used too, hunters are traveling across rivers that are not yet frozen, and we are losing many hunters of an age group that should be our leaders of tomorrow.

“High fuel prices limit our travels to areas where we might find game. The Bering Sea has always been the birth place of the storms that ravage the West Coast of Alaska. Severe storms now being more frequent are eroding our coastal villages’ river banks. For loved ones who have passed on, their final resting places are being disturbed and have to be moved, or their remains are being washed to sea.”

The Yup’ik and Inupiat populations in Alaska closely observe the quality of sea ice for spring hunting. When sea ice in the spring melts early, it shortens the hunting season. Inupiat elders point to the last decade as a period of considerable change. In the past, they predicted weather using traditional indicators such as clouds, winds, and currents. They say these indicators are no longer valid.

When the ice melts, it creates mushy conditions, which are dangerous for hunting. When conditions in 2002 began to thin the ice and make it more hazardous for travel, hunters in Shishmaref (on the far western shore of Alaska, about 120 miles north of Nome) were forced to travel as far as 200 miles from town to hunt for walrus. Hunters started using boats to hunt seals instead of hunting them over the ice.

Accidents on the sea ice are increasing due to unusual conditions, resulting in injuries and death, loss of valuable equipment, and expensive rescues. There are no clear statistics on the number of ice-related accidents, yet more are being reported, Native leaders say. When sea ice is present, less moisture moves from the ocean to the atmosphere, which limits the development of strong storms. With less sea ice, stronger storms are occurring. Unexpected storms have left hunting parties stranded.

Said Robert Thompson, a subsistence whaler from the Inupiat village of Kaktovik near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, in an interview:

“We have very few musk-ox left, 50 to 60 thousand less porcupine caribou, polar bears are threatened, and other things are happening that couldn’t be put into models. The ocean opens in the summer up to 700 miles out. We are in for more changes we haven’t even anticipated. Sea birds are in decline. Birds that nest on barrier islands are being predated by polar bears which must be on the land more due to no ice. The list goes on.

“And we hear the cry, ‘drill baby drill!’ Proposals to drill offshore are being considered. The Arctic Refuge is constantly under attack. The problems which have caused the change, excessive burning of fossil fuels is being pursued at a much faster pace. Indeed, it is being said by pro drilling advocates, more places for mineral and oil extraction are opening up. Even our governor has weighed in, in opposition to protecting the environment or our wildlife.”

Some of the most dramatic illustrations of climate change’s impact on human lives can be seen in Shishmaref, population 590, a traditional Inupiat Eskimo village with a fishing and subsistence lifestyle located on Sarichef Island, in the Chukchi Sea.

Retreating sea ice in the Chukchi Sea has made possible the large waves that are eroding the shoreline and are now threatening to destroy the village’s large fuel stores near the shore. In October 1997 a severe storm wiped out 30 feet of land on the village’s north shore, requiring 14 homes and the National Guard Armory to be relocated. Five more homes were relocated in 2002. The shoreline has continued to erode approximately 3 to 5 feet per year on the north shore. The ocean claimed the town’s drinking water supply.

In July 2002, residents voted to relocate the community. But the village has been offered no state or federal financial help for relocation costs.

The evacuation plan calls for residents to leave by plane, and many worry that the airport may get flooded out. Every year, residents agonize whether the next storm will be the one that wipes out the entire village.

Other Alaska communities in low-lying areas, including Kivalina, and Little Diomede, are also affected by climate changes and face severe problems because of erosion and thawing of the permafrost.

In Kivalina, erosion has caused the bluff line to recede more than 36 feet, destroying structures and forcing other homes to be moved. Local officials are concerned that seawater has contaminated the community’s water source.

A 2006 report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said climate change may force Kivalina to move. “The potential loss of the town site to the encroaching sea provides ample justification for its relocation. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that this trend will cease in light of the global forces that appear to be contributing to it.”

Since the early 1980s, the time between the spring break-up of sea ice and the autumn freeze-up along Arctic shorelines has increased from barely three months to as much as five months. “Longer periods of ice free water extend the ‘season’ for coastal erosion. Larger expanses of ice-free water generate ocean waves that are higher, longer, and potentially more destructive to the shorelines,” the Army Corps said.

The city and Native Village of Kivalina have filed a $400 million lawsuit against ExxonMobil and 23 other energy companies. They claim that the large amounts of greenhouse gases these companies emit contribute to global warming, threatening the community’s existence.

By Paul Koberstein

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