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Climate Change Threatens Arctic Alaska Village's Fish Stock, Drinking Water

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Melting ice cellars and rotting whale meat, the arrival of beaver fever in a once-pristine land, and water supplies that might go dry are just a few of the health risks posed by climate change in the Arctic.

Now, in a newly released fifth report examining looming threats to villages, the Center for Climate and Health at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium zeroes in on the Arctic Alaska village of Selawik, population 830, about 70 miles southeast of Kotzebue that's said to be sinking as permafrost thaws.

The Inupiat village has been called the "Venice of Northwest Alaska" because of the settling ground. Stairs to some houses no longer reach the ground. Shifting water pipes break more easily. And some homes tilt so much toilet bowls can't fill with water for flushing, forcing families to return to the old-fashioned honeybucket.

Sheefish threatened

The Inupiat community straddles both sides of the Selawik River, in a roadless coastal plane pitted with lakes. The village now experiences more rain and snowfall than it did five decades ago. Average monthly temperatures have risen during that period, including by 4 degrees in January, according to the report.

Threatening the village are sinkholes that have formed beside the river, sending landslides of silt, rock and gravel tumbling into spawning areas for sheefish -- an animal that plays a key role in subsistence diets in the region.

The sinkholes are thermokarsts formed when ice beneath the tundra vanishes. They produce scooped-out swaths of earth, making them a particularly visible effect of climate change. Legions of them have formed in the last decade, but the biggest one in North America emerged eight years ago about 175 miles upstream of the village.

Read the complete story and see photos of the Selawik thermokarst only at Alaska Dispatch.

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