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Tipping point in Arctic meltdown; Inuit culture threatened by global warming, 181 Alaskan villages face erosion


By WcP.System.Thinker - Posted on 15 October 2008

this summer saw the first-ever recorded opening of both potential Arctic Ocean routes - the Northwest passage and the Northern Sea Route

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This summer, for the first time, both the fabled Northwest Passage through the upper reaches of North America and the Northern Sea Route above Russia opened up, apart from drifting ice. Overall, the expanse of Arctic sea ice was the second smallest in the 30 years of monitoring (summer 2007 was the smallest), and that left an islandlike polar ice cap surrounded by open water. In just the past five years, summer ice has shrunk by more than 25 percent, and so has its average thickness. One consequence of this change is that much of the sun's heat formerly reflected back out to space by the ice sheets is now being absorbed, entrenching the warming process. The acceleration of the ice melt is outstripping earlier predictions of a basically ice-free Arctic summer by mid- or late century. NASA climate scientist H. Jay Zwally now anticipates that most of the Arctic will lose summer ice in only five to 10 years. "We appear to be going through a tipping point," he says.

Newtok, Alaska, in spring, 2007, as viewed from its water tower. Boardwalks squish into the muck in Newtok, which erosion has turned into an island

Already, the ice melt is threatening the traditional livelihoods of native Inuit peoples from Alaska to Greenland. In Alaska, Inuit hunting has grown more difficult because walrus herds have moved away with the receding ice. In Greenland, where glaciers are thawing, similar dislocations are happening, even while commercial interests undertake a "new gold rush" for natural resources, in the words of Inuit leader Aqqaluk Lynge. The Inuits want more say in how the High North is developed. "You have to settle things with us," says Lynge. "We are witnessing, almost, the death of our culture if we don't do anything."

Newtok, Alaska, shoreline erosion

Alaska is at the vanguard of climate change. The state's northern parts have seen an average temperature rise of three degrees celsius in recent decades. As its northern bank melts and slides into the tidal water, the body of the river moves steadily towards the village of Newtok. The permafrost - the frozen ground that previously kept the Ninglik stable, as well as providing a solid base for the village's scattered houses - is melting. Flood defenses have been tried, and have failed. The river encroaches by around 130ft (40m) each spring and summer, and it might swallow Newtok within a few years. So the villagers have decided to move on.

A report to the US Congress found that 181 Alaskan villages may be threatened by erosion. Fifteen villages are a priority, of which three are urgent, including Newtok. The other two are the coastal communities of Shishmaref and Kivalina, which are vulnerable through a loss of protective sea ice during the stormy autumns. The University of Alaska Institute for Social and Economic Reform carried out a study into the costs of climate change, based on predictive climate models. It estimated the bills could run into billions of dollars.

these children are set to grow up away from Newtok

The US Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for sea defences and flood protection. Its chief engineer in Alaska, Trish Opheen, believes climate change could cause damage not just at the coast, but to runways, roads and structures right across the state. "Climate change is going to affect the infrastructure, especially in the Arctic," she says. "It's jeopardised by the phase change of permafrost to thawing ground."

For Stanley Tom and the people of Newtok, it's a race against time. Now the riverbank is frozen until spring. But when the sun returns, the river will once again start eating into Newtok. "It'll start melting as soon as the sun comes, it'll start dripping and just erode away," he says. "All summer long it just keeps coming in. We've got maybe two, three more years. But there's no way of stopping the erosion."

vanishing Alaskan villages due to melting ice and erosion

The Arctic meltdown—an early symptom of global warming linked to the buildup of atmospheric greenhouse gases—heralds tantalizing prospects for the five nations that own the Arctic Ocean coastline: the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, and Denmark (through its possession of Greenland). But this monumental transformation also carries risks quite aside from the climate implications for the planet—risks that include renewed great-power rivalry, pollution, destruction of native Inuit communities and animal habitats, and security breaches. "The world is coming to the Arctic," warns Rob Huebert, a leading Arctic analyst at the University of Calgary. "We are headed for a lot of difficulties."

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Images courtesy of Stephen Rountree/USN&WR, BBC News and Charles Mason / The New York Times

Original Source: BBC News and US News & World Report

Related Article: Victim of Climate Change, a Town Seeks a Lifeline

I like that which you people are usually up far too. Such clever function as well as exposure!

I like that which you people are usually up far too. Such clever function as well as exposure!

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