In the Empire of Ice

In the Empire of Ice by Gretel Ehrlich

Book: In the Empire of Ice by Gretel Ehrlich Read Free Book Online
Authors: Gretel Ehrlich
    Where the coast ends, there’s a frozen lagoon, and the village of Shishmaref is spread laterally along an arm of land—a barrier island called Sarichef. Afloat between ocean and island, the hooked moon appears to be the only thing holding the village in place.
    “Our island is getting smaller,” a young man says when we arrive. By snowmobile to the house of Joe’s sister-in-law, we roar through sifting frost-fall between two rows of houses built so close together I wonder if we haven’t landed in a Japanese town rather than an Inupiat village. The house is neat but crowded with skins, sewing materials, and small beds for grandchildren. There’s a note on the kitchen table welcoming us.
    We’re here in “Shish” to see the ways coastal erosion and global warming can damage a place. Earlier we’d met two young civil engineers coming to Shishmaref to “grow permafrost” using a special fabric, sand, and rocks in what is possibly a futile effort to mitigate tidal erosion as a result of the retreating ice pack. Every coastal village, town, and city in the world is now threatened by inevitable sea level rise, but these Arctic villages, as well as the small island nations in the South Pacific, are the first to feel its devastating effect.
    We walk to the end of the island, where houses have fallen into the sea. Those still standing are tilted sideways. Waves crash over a wall piled high with broken shore ice. Winds off the Chukchi Sea routinely gust to 60 miles an hour, bringing in 14-foot-high waves. Every time, this tiny island loses between 10 and 38 feet of sand and earth. Now night has fallen, though technically it’s day. Wind-blasted snow hangs on the remaining buildings. The temperature has plummeted to minus 50.
    Coastal erosion isn’t new. Earthquakes brought tsunamis. Big storm waves, like the one in 1914 that wiped out much of Wales, have shaped the Seward Peninsula. The shore at Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island, has been augmented, whereas Wales, Shishmaref, and Kivalina are losing ground. In 1899 Edward Nelson reported coastal erosion during his 1,200-mile-long dogsled journey along the west coast of Arctic Alaska, recounted in his epic The Eskimo About Bering Strait .
    Now melting permafrost and rising sea level is the relentless signature of anthropogenic global warming. Most of Arctic Alaska is underlain by permafrost. Some 70 to 90 percent of its tundra will vanish within a hundred years. As a result, there are drunken forests—trees that are sinking and leaning sideways—and building and road slumps. What Nelson called Eskimo villages—a row of simply constructed houses, drying racks, kayaks and umiat, and little else—now consist of up-to-date runways, airports, weather stations, schools, gymnasiums, and modular houses, and the cost of moving such villages is astronomical. And if the permafrost goes out quickly, there will be no roadway sturdy enough to move anything.
    “Where my mother’s house used to stand is now only sea,” says John, a handsome and sophisticated man who teaches traditional arts at the local school. “I came back here to live in ‘Shish’ after college. Had to learn to hunt all over again, the hard way. I didn’t know the currents and weather signs, but we had good, thick ice then, all the way past the Fourth of July.” He’s married now, with five children and one adopted child, and he hunts for his food while his wife sews traditional clothing.
    He says that the bad storms in 1974 sent waves through the end of town all the way to the lagoon. Fifty feet of the island was lost. It seemed unusual. Now they lose 15 to 20 feet each season. High water comes with south winds, but now, no matter which way the wind blows, huge swells come in and crash onto shore. “We’ll have to move soon. The seawall is sinking. The cement blocks we’ve stacked up have disappeared. We don’t have good drinking water anymore. There are a lot of sewage overflows. Our houses are

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