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Melting ice forces sinking Alaska village to seek lifeline

Annalee Paniyak, 2, (left) Bernadette John, 4, and Taylor John, 4, played in Newtok, Alaska. Permafrost beneath Newtok is melting, yielding to warming temperatures in the air and ocean. (Charles Mason/New York Times)

NEWTOK, Alaska -- The sturdy little Cessnas land whenever the fog lifts, delivering children's bicycles, boxes of bullets, outboard motors, and cans of dried oats. And then, with a rumble down a gravel strip, the planes are gone, the outside world recedes, and this sub arctic outpost steels itself once again to face the frontier of climate change.

"I don't want to live in permafrost no more," said Frank Tommy, 47, standing beside gutted geese and seal meat drying on a wooden rack outside his mother's house. "It's too muddy. Everything is crooked around here."

The earth beneath much of Alaska is not what it used to be. The permanently frozen subsoil, known as permafrost, upon which Newtok and so many other Native Alaskan villages rest, is melting, yielding to warming air temperatures and a warming ocean. Sea ice that would normally protect coastal villages is forming later in the year, allowing fall storms to pound away at the shoreline.

Erosion has made Newtok an island, caught between the ever widening Ninglick River and a slough to the north. The village is below sea level, and sinking. Boardwalks squish into the spring muck. Human waste, collected in "honey buckets" that many residents use for toilets, is often dumped within eyeshot in a village where no point is more than a five-minute walk from any other. The ragged wooden houses have to be adjusted regularly to level them on the shifting soil.

Studies say Newtok could be washed away within a decade. Along with the villages of Shishmaref and Kivalina farther to the north, it has been the hardest hit of about 180 Alaska villages that suffer some degree of erosion.

Some villages plan to hunker down behind sea walls built or planned by the Army Corps of Engineers, at least for now. Others, like Newtok, have no choice but to abandon their patch of tundra. The corps has estimated that to move Newtok could cost $130 million because of its remoteness, climate, and topography. That comes to almost $413,000 for each of the 315 residents.

Not that anyone is offering to pay.

After all, climate change is raising questions about how to deal with drought, wildfires, hurricanes, and other threats that affect so many more people and involve large sums of money.

"We haven't sat down as a society and said, 'How are we going to adapt to this?' " said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University and a lead author of a report by a UN panel on the impacts and vulnerability presented by climate change. "Just like we haven't sat down and said, 'How are we going to reduce emissions?' And both have to be done."

Amid the uncertainty, the residents of Newtok hear the skeptics, who question the price tag for moving such a small place. But residents here emphasize that they are a federally recognized American Indian tribe, and they shudder when asked why they cannot just move to an existing village or a city like Fairbanks.

They say their identity is rooted in their isolation, however qualified it has become over the last century by outside influences. It was the government, they say, that insisted decades ago that they abandon their nomadic ways and pick a place to call home.

The current village site was once only a winter camp, and the people of Newtok say they are not to blame just because they are now among the first climate refugees in the United States.

"The federal government, they're the ones who came into our lives and took away some of our values," said Nick Tom Jr., 49, the former Newtok tribal administrator. "They came in and said, 'You aren't civilized. We're going to educate you.' That was hard for our grandparents."

Newtok's leaders say that the corps' relocation estimates are inflated, and that they intend to move piecemeal rather than in one collective migration, which they say will save money. But they say the government should pay, no matter the cost -- if only there were a government agency charged with doing so. There is not a formal process by which a village can apply to the government to relocate.

"They grossly overestimate it, and that's why federal and state agencies are afraid to step in," said Stanley Tom, the current tribal administrator and the brother of Nick Tom Jr.

Still, Newtok has made far more progress toward moving than other villages, piecing together its move grant by grant.

Through a land swap with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, it has secured a new site, on Nelson Island, 9 miles south. It is safe from the waves on a windy rise above the Ninglick River.

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