For hundreds of years, the small village of Shishmaref, an Alaskan village on the Arctic coast, has survived, if not exactly thrived, because it was frozen for much of the year. Now it is literally melting away, as the permafrost that had propped it up for generations turns to mud. Offshore, the nearly year-long ice has given way to water.
The fate of Shishmaref is told by Boston Globe reporter Charles Pierce (lately the scourge of Tiger Woods) in his book “Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free.” Pierce writes:
The formation of the ice allowed the people of Shishmaref to go out on the sea and hunt. The permafrost guaranteed they would have a place to which they could return. Nowadays, though, the ice is late and soft. The permafrost is thawing. And Shishmaref is falling, bit by bit, in the Chukchi Sea….
There is no question about the cause of Shishmaref’s whittling away. Global climate change — specifically, what has come to be called global warming — is gradually devastating the Arctic. Alaska’s mean temperature has risen five degrees in thirty years and the permafrost is receding everywhere. The Arctic Ocean’s ice pack … is shrinking about 10 percent a year, and the pace of that shrinkage is accelerating.
In February 2008, Tom Kizzia of the Anchorage Daily News reported on what global warming was doing to Shishmaref and other northern villages, writing, “Alaska has lagged behind some other states in targeting emissions, even though the effects of rising temperatures have been pronounced here.”
And at that time, Kizzia wrote, then-governor Sarah Palin was looking into ways of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases in Alaska. Things change.
Update: For more on Palin’s rightward journey on global warming, see the addendum to this post.
You can learn more about the issue from the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition, whose Web site is the source of the above photo.