Alaska villages melting away

Alaska village. (George A. Kalli/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via AP, File)
Alaska village. (George A. Kalli/U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via AP, File)

Los Angeles - When autumn storms thunder in to Kivalina, Alaska, lifelong resident Colleen Swan says, "it gets very bad".

Violent winds batter the tiny barrier island along Alaska's north-west coast, slamming walls of icy water into a fragile shore. Just 4 metres above the level of the Chukchi Sea, the island floods easily, and when rough weather cuts off air and sea travel, there's often no way out.

It used to be that by the time the storms came, the sea's surface would be frozen, and ice would buffer the brunt of the waves. But as the climate has warmed, the ice now forms too late in the year to protect Kivalina.

Pounded for years by wind and water, the island and the village on it are literally crumbling into the sea - leaving its about 400 mostly Inupiaq Eskimo residents no choice but to leave.

Swan, a member of the village government who is leading the community's relocation efforts, told dpa that climate change has made Kivalina too dangerous to stay.

"There are no other options," she said. "We do have to get off the island. It's not a choice anymore."

Alaskans live at the "front lines" of climate change, US President Barack Obama said, in a video announcing his three-day visit to the state starting on Monday.

Alaska's climate is warming twice as quickly as global averages, with winter temperatures up nearly 3.5°C since the 1950s.

Shrinking glaciers, melting sea ice and disappearing wildlife aren't just headlines here - they're tangible changes that impact the homes and livelihoods of rural people who hunt and fish to survive in an icy climate.

Their plight is a "preview of what will happen to the rest of us if we don't take action," Obama said in the video. "It's a wake-up call."

A school on Kivalina

Kivalina has become something of a poster child for climate change in Alaska, drawing a visit in February from Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

Although Obama isn't scheduled to visit Kivalina - Swan said his advance team had problems with the airstrip - residents hope to meet him in the regional hub of Kotzebue, which the White House said he will visit on Tuesday.

Alaskan native people have lived on the mainland near Kivalina for centuries, subsistence hunters who migrated between dozens of seasonal camps in pursuit of wild harvest and game.

But a century ago, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school on Kivalina - chosen because it had easy water access - and required parents to settle there so their children could attend.

Now, as frozen seas turn slushy and permafrost melts to mud, Kivalina and other Alaska communities built on a foundation of ice find themselves on unsteady ground.

US government studies have identified 184 Alaskan native communities threatened by climate change, and singled out 12, including Kivalina, for urgent relocation, according to a 2013 research paper published by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

But relocating an entire community is as hard as it sounds.

It will cost more than $100m just to build a new, safer Kivalina and the roads to get there. Local, state, federal and tribal authorities disagree over the best way to do it, and who should foot the bill.

"They're the ones who put us here, so they should probably move us," Swan said.

Our children

In the meantime, efforts to engineer the island back to safety have faltered.

Rock revetments built to shore up the coastline have a lifespan of just 10 to 15 years. A 2006 storm severely damaged a brand-new multimillion-dollar seawall before the town even had a chance to inaugurate it, according to a media account cited in the Brookings research.

Even moved to safety on the mainland, Kivalina residents will continue to be affected by climate change. They told Jewell melting sea ice affects the hunt for bowhead whale and walrus and wild meat spoils in warming ice cellars, according to the Alaska Dispatch News.

Colleen Swan hopes to have the chance to meet with Obama to tell him about her concerns, and appreciates his efforts to slow global warming.

"It's good that they're talking about long-term solutions," like cutting carbon emissions, she said.

But in Kivalina and communities like it, she said the long term is already too late.

"It's so far gone that the situation is going to get worse before it gets better," she said. "We're going to leave this problem to our children if we don't solve this problem now."

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