Hawaii & Alaska
City council member Walter Nelson walks in a cemetery that has been relocated twice and is now a mass grave because of severe erosion of the permafrost in the village of Napakiak in Alaska / © AFP

Alaska's indigenous people feel the heat of climate change

The cemetery has already been moved twice, the old school is underwater and the new one is facing the same fate as erosion constantly eats away at the land in Napakiak.

The tiny village located in southwestern Alaska, along the meandering Kuskokwim River, is one of dozens of coastal indigenous communities across the state that are on the front lines of climate change, their very existence and way of life threatened by the warming temperatures.

"The shoreline keeps eroding much faster than predictions and we are continuously having to move back from the river to higher ground," city council member Walter Nelson told an AFP team on a recent tour of the isolated village of 350 residents, most of them Yupik Eskimos. "Here, we are dealing with climate change on a daily basis."

Waving his hands left and right, he points to houses and other structures, most of them on stilts, that are affected by rapid coastal erosion and thawing permafrost -- a once-permanently frozen ground on which many Alaska native villages are built.

"It's a constant race against time and right now the local grocery store, the fire station and a city building are top of the list for relocation," Nelson said. "The school will be next but we won't be able to move it. We will have to tear it down and build a new one."

Severe erosion of the permafrost threatens the school in the village of Napakiak in Alaska / © AFP

The same drama is playing out across all of Alaska's coastal communities, many of which are not accessible by road, except in the winter, when the rivers freeze and turn into ice roads that are increasingly non-existent because of the warming temperatures.

According to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office, the majority of the state's more than 200 native villages are affected by erosion and flooding, with 31 facing "imminent threats."

Among those in danger of going underwater is Newtok, located near Alaska's western coast, where all of the roughly 350 residents should complete the daunting task of relocating this summer to a new village about nine miles away.

Further south, in Quinhagak, which sits along the Bering Sea and near the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, local leaders are also mulling moving the entire village of 700 people to safer grounds.

"We've already moved twice and the last time was in 1979," said Warren Jones, president of the local Yupik corporation known as Qanirtuuq, Inc. "But the erosion is happening too quickly and now we're preparing land for the new site which will be further inland."

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