August 31, 2009

Alaskan village moving, a victim of global warming

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The Anchorage Daily News has a fascinating account of how Newtok, a native Alaskan village, is being forced to move miles upriver to escape coastal erosion that’s thought to be exacerbated by climate change.

Newtok is just the first of at least four villages that will have to move in coming years, the others being Kivalina, Shishmaref and Unalakleet.

Newtok itself is something of a modern invention. Until the last century, the ancestors of the natives had lived a semi-nomadic existence, moving according to the seasons to where they could subsist.

Kyle Hopkins’ story outlines how difficult it is likely to be to get the $80 million to $130 million it’s estimated the move will cost. (Also check out the audio slideshow) The town’s dock has been underwater since 2005, and with sea ice not around to block incoming swells, some interesting challenges already are a part of daily life:

Normally, a village would have a community sewage lagoon to contain the waste — a pond set off from where people live. But there’s little chance of that, or anything else new, being built in Newtok these days. The relocation effort has frozen the community in a kind of public-funding purgatory because no one wants to spend money on a place that’s about to be abandoned.

The river used to wash the waste out to sea. But the erosion has turned the Newtok into a shallow slough, and lately, residents say, it doesn’t wash out like it used to. Sometimes floods sweep it back into town.

On a recent afternoon, the riverbank reeked of sewage.

Construction of the new village won’t start before 2011.

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