Thursday, October 2, 2008

The First Climate Change Refugees (con't)

The grounds are disintegrating at an alarming rate; the sea is marching in the direction of the villagers at around 90ft a year
Photograph: Brian Adams

There are 90,000 Alaskans, mostly Eskimos or Inuit, that make their homes on top of the permafrost. Their few roads are now cracking and caving in making travel difficult if not impossible in some areas. Alaska has 213 Native villages of which 184 are severely affected by erosion and flooding with six being classed as needing immediate help. Newtok is at the top of the list.

While they wait for help the villagers have tried to bolster up their village until they have somewhere else to go; but, they are running out of options. The piles (stilts) that the houses are built on used to be driven 8’ down into the permafrost for stability. Now they are being driven down 12’ and that still isn’t enough. As the permafrost melts, the houses shift and tilt to the south. The reason they tilt to the south is that the southern sunshine causes a disproportionate melting of the permafrost.

The ocean’s relentless advance is the greatest threat to this outcropping of civilization. It is the permafrost that has kept the tundra safe from the ocean’s advance for all the decades. Without the permafrost to act as a barrier between the land and the sea, the water undercuts the topsoil until it topples over in enormous clumps like the one in the picture at the beginning of the first article. Then the topsoil is sucked into the ocean and vanishes causing the water to advance on the village at an astonishing 90’ a year. It has already taken the barge landing where the villagers used to moor their boats. It is estimated that it will be only two years or so until the first houses are claimed by the ocean.

The new site of the village will be on Nelson Island about nine miles to the south of their present location. The villagers have built three houses themselves so far, with the help of government grants; on land that is high enough up the hillside to be safe from the dangers of climate change. These first three houses are being given to the elders – the villager’s advisors, their most precious resources.

The new village will be called Mertarvik, meaning “getting water from a spring”, after the abundance of drinking water to be found on the island. The natural abundance the villagers depend on to survive is evident everywhere on the island. Wild musk ox inhabit the island and the waters are teeming with whitefish, herring and halibut. The island is covered with berry bushes of great variety: nagoonberries, cranberries, crowberries, blue-, black-, and red-berries.

It is estimated that the villagers of Newtok can be tranferred to their new village of Mertarvik by 2012.

No comments: