Remember Shaktoolik

10/04/2010 10:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jon Rosales Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, St. Lawrence University

The Arctic sea alongside the village of Shaktoolik, Alaska, is angrier than it has ever been in the memory of those that live there. Climate change is to blame. I have to say, I'm angry as well, given our government's failure to pass legislation that would assist the people of Shaktoolik and 30 other Alaskan communities adapt to conditions caused by climate change.

In this remote region, there is surely another disaster waiting to happen. And if the autumn and winter storms are severe enough and tragedy does come, the blame would fall squarely in Washington's lap for failing to act on known facts about the conditions in the Arctic.

My research interests have brought me to Shaktoolik, a village of 250, located on the southern part of the Bering Strait, the U.S. side of the land bridge that once stretched over to Siberia. The village lines up along a sand-and-gravel barrier island no wider than a few hundred yards, with the sea on one side and the Shaktoolik River on the other.

Proximity to marine and freshwater environments made Shaktoolik an excellent place to live with easy access to game, bird eggs, and edible tundra plants and berries. The abundant sea was a also known for its calm waters and predictable weather. That is partly why people settled here. Calm water, for example, makes relatively smooth sea ice with few ridges for game to hide behind.

But the Arctic weather has changed dramatically over the last few decades, becoming increasingly severe. The sea is less predictable, and far more dangerous.

Now Shaktoolik's very existence is in jeopardy. Unprecedented storms hit the village in two recent years. A 2004 storm deposited an enormous amount of driftwood perilously close to the houses and buildings. The large logs could have easily become battering rams and destroyed the village. It was a close call.

A 2009 storm was even mightier, and it would have lifted up the 2004 driftwood, combined it with its own driftwood load, and destroyed the village, but miraculously, a layer of sea ice emerged just before the storm and dampened the surge and wave activity. The driftwood acted as a sea wall.

Next time, the people of Shaktoolik may not be so fortunate. They have nowhere to go in such emergencies. There is no evacuation road to higher ground, which is about 13 miles to the east. There is no emergency shelter in the village. Children and the elderly hunker down in the school during the storms. They look toward the storm season this fall with trepidation. They do not want to become climate victims.

Evacuation flights, either by airplane or helicopter, cannot land in severe weather. Evacuation by boat is impossible on a frozen river, and if it is not frozen, the unmarked mouth of the river cannot be found in a storm.

When the next storm hits, the people of Shaktoolik will simply have to hold on to what they have and hope for the best. They look toward the storm season this fall with trepidation. They do not want to become climate victims.

Inaction by the Senate is infuriatingly difficult to fathom, given how vulnerable the people of Shaktoolik and other Alaskan villages are, and the amount of information our leaders have on climate change and conditions in the Arctic. For decades, we have known that increased storm intensity and sea level rise can be expected with climate change. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) alerted Congress of the flooding and erosion threats related to the rapid warming in the Arctic, and the 2009 report outlined the reasons for inactivity.

While villages like Shaktoolik have received scant coverage in the mediapress, Congress has been kept informed for years. While the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (House Resolution 2454) passed, intransigent senators continue to argue that climate protection is too expensive, will affect employment, and otherwise hurt the economy. They ignore scientific consensus on climate change, preferring to rely upon arguments funded by the fossil fuel industry.

The Senate should move forward with legislation that provides ways that residents can adapt to climate change, as the House did, albeit with a meager $5 million to- $20 million per year allocated for all tribal governments in the U.S. By comparison, a 2009 GAOreport estimates that moving three other threatened villages in Alaska would cost between $80 and $-200 million each. The threatened villages in Alaska need assistance with relocation, emergency shelters and roads to higher ground.

Should we wait for Shaktoolik to disappear before acting? Surely we know better. Remember this village when you hear politicians talk about greenhouse gas emissions, and remember this village as a new batch of potential Senators seeks your vote.

Jon Rosales is an associate professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and researches the impact of climate change on native communities in Alaska.