12/06/2011 03:07 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2012

Alaska's New Climate: Act Now, or Await Disaster

When an "extra-tropical cyclone" bore down recently on the small village of Shaktoolik on the coast of Alaska, an area I've been researching for the past decade, I called the village coordinator. There was no time for pleasantries. "We need to get people out of here!" said Carole Sookiayak, as she stood, looking out her window with the Norton Sound pounding at her doorstep. Mercifully, the surges were less severe than predicted, the driftwood held firm and sea ice dampened wave activity.

Natural forces saved Shaktoolik. This time.

Alaska's new climate features a potent mix of wind, snow, rain and surging ocean with pounding waves. A reflective landscape exposed to solar radiation is causing a rapid loss of snow and ice. Sequestered for thousands of years, carbon-rich deposits in the permafrost and ocean floor leach out, adding another pulse of greenhouse gases to those from fossil fuel-burning and deforestation.

Storms feed on the heat accumulating in the oceans, something climatologists warned us about decades ago. Recall that Katrina reconstituted itself after it passed over Florida and then swelled as it drew strength from the Gulf of Mexico.

The atmosphere at the poles is thinner, so additional greenhouse gases have a pronounced effect, with warming rates up to four times the rate of the rest of the planet. Runaway climate change in the Arctic concerns me, and it should concern Congress as well.

Scientists are getting better at predicting the impact of wind direction, tides and "fetch" -- the distance wind travels on the open water -- on coastal communities. Up north, we are just beginning to appreciate the importance of sea ice, which forms along with slush on the ocean bottom, then floats up to the surface, forming walls that dampen wave activity and storm surge. Sea ice is at record low levels.

Those involved with the Alaskans Sharing Indigenous Knowledge (AKSIK) have been tracking villages like Shaktoolik for the past few years, and in video interviews, residents report how vulnerable they are to flooding, erosion and coastal destruction. See for information.

A community of 250 people, Shaktoolik came very close to being destroyed by this recent storm. A large deposit of driftwood held the waves back just enough to save the village. Had the tide risen a few more feet, the logs would have been transformed in to battering rams, destroying the houses and buildings and dragging its people in to the freezing, churning ocean. It was an uncomfortably close call, as it was in 2005 and 2009, when storms hit.

Evacuation, difficult in the best of circumstances, is virtually impossible here. Planes and helicopters won't fly in storms and the river is frozen, impassible by boat. They need an evacuation center, a building firmly anchored to bedrock, and they need an evacuation road to higher ground.

I know what you're asking, but the people of Shaktoolik and similar communities along Alaska's coast cannot simply relocate. They live where they live because their identities are drawn from the land. If they moved to Nome or Anchorage, it would mean cultural destruction.

A few villages have, in fact, relocated to higher ground, extremely expensive undertaking. According to a General Accounting Office report, there are 31 imminently vulnerable communities in Alaska, yet we have no domestic climate bill in sight and no international aid that vulnerable people in developed countries can draw on.

So villages are left to fend for themselves. One, Kivalina, is suing Exxon-Mobil for $400 million on the grounds that burning their oil has destroyed the sea ice that once protected their village. The case is now pending in the 9th Circuit Court.

Federal resources should support villages like Shaktoolik, so they can adapt to their new storm-riddled climate. The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 allocates funds to the states and then to the most vulnerable communities. While that funding is insufficient, it is an acknowledgement of the need. Simple math proves that using taxpayer money now to pay for adaptation measures would be less expensive than paying for disaster relief efforts after storms hit.