Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The World's First Climate Change Refugees

In the eroded craters it is possible to see the thin layer of ice that is melting around six feet below the surface. The drips are soaked back up into the soil, causing it to become soft and spongy which allows the sea to slowly undercut and eventually take over the soft soil. Photograph: Brian Adams

Our world is starting to fray around the edges literally. One of the first places to begin to unravel is the land and permafrost under a small village named Newtok on the Alaskan coast (pop. 320).

For years, the men of Newtok have gathered in the qasgiq, the house built of sods dug deep into the tundra and reserved only for the men. This is where the young men would learn of the history of their people; of traditional hunting and fishing methods; survival skills; and, most importantly, bond with the other males of the community.

When the elders of today were young boys, the snow outside lay thick on the ground and the sea was a single block of ice as far as the eye could see. The elders back then warned of a great reversal – a time when seasons would change and the coast of the Bering Sea would never see winter again.

This prediction came from observation of the land, the birds, the animals, the sea, and many other subtle clues for months and years. The elders today are equally observant and they say the change has arrived.

They point to things like snow which used to lie thick on ground until well into June now disappears as early as April. This brings the geese from the south months before they are due. In the old days, the villagers used to take the dog teams out in January or February across the pack ice to fish for sticklebacks. The ice used to be 6’ thick or more. Now it’s a good year if it’s 4’ thick. In the elders’ youth land could be seen stretching far into the distance from the village. Now the water is literally lapping at the village edge.

Newtok has 60 houses and communal buildings, all of which are sinking and tilting at odd angles -- most are tipping downwards at a southern pitch. The boardwalk that connects the homes is sinking and bending in great snake-like curves. It moves slightly when you walk on it.

But how can global warming cause land to fray? Global warming is causing the permafrost underneath the tundra to melt and this is the problem.

Newtok has been described as the Ground Zero of global warming. NASA admits that Alaska has suffered temperature rises approximately double that of any other place on earth in the last 50 years. It has been estimated that Alaska is 4F higher on average; but, can reach 10F higher in winter.

What causes this phenomenon? It’s called positive feedback. Ice and snow have a brilliantly reflective surface which normally would reflect most of the radiation from the sun back into space. However, due to global warming, the ice has started to melt and the exposed land absorbs the radiation, which causes further warming and melting. This starts the melting of the frozen segment of the tundra which forms the permafrost. Scientists feel it could be thinning by as much as or more than an inch a year.

More on this tomorrow!

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