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Warming brings unwelcome change to Alaska villages

By Dan Joling
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) April 2011

Inupiat Eskimo villagers in the Chukchi Sea village of Kivalina rely on wild animals to survive, but a recent arrival associated with climate warming is causing health concerns.

Beavers have colonized the Wulik River, Kivalina’s main source for water. Beaver feces carry a microscopic protozoa that can cause giardia, known to campers elsewhere in Alaska as “beaver fever.” Diarrhea and vomiting are symptoms. Kivalina hunters using the Wulik as a corridor to inland caribou herds have been warned to boil water before drinking it.

Beavers are among the unwelcome changes associated with climate change, said Michael Brubaker, lead author of reports documenting how two northwest villages have been affected. The appearance of North America’s largest rodent was a signal that a traditional water source had changed.

“It’s a new health issue,” Brubaker said. “It affects people’s behavior. It can affect people’s health and it also affects the cost of running water facilities.”

Brubaker is director of community environment and safety for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a health organization managed by tribal governments and their regional health organizations.

Warming is rotting the sea ice that villagers use to hunt marine mammals, thawing ice cellars used to store food, disrupting utilities and interrupting the rhythms of life that have sustained Arctic communities for centuries.

Kivalina, with a population of about 400, is on a barrier island 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Far off the road system, groceries have to come in by barge or air. Gasoline sells for $5.75 per gallon.

Residents hunt bearded seal, beluga whale and caribou and catch Arctic char. They have not killed a bowhead whale in a decade and speculate that warming has been a factor. Sea ice used to fracture into distinct leads, or open channels, that bowheads used as migration paths and hunters could monitor. Ice during the spring hunt now resembles a fractured mirror.

A decrease in sea ice had increased the fetch of wind and wave size, making travel in small boats more dangerous, affecting the hunting of other marine mammals.

Kivalina’s sand and gravel island is held together by beach grass, and at one time, permanently frozen ground. Sea ice used to form sooner and protect against winter storms but a longer ice-free season has meant acres lost to erosion.

The possibility that Kivalina one day may have to move has discouraged public agencies from investing in infrastructure, including sanitation improvements. Human excrement is removed from homes with “honey buckets” – 5-gallon pails lined with garbage bags. The bags are hauled by a snowmobile or an all-terrain vehicle to a dump. On bumpy roads in spring and summer, bags frequently leak, creating cesspool puddles.

“Climate change aside, you have these ongoing challenges in providing safe drinking water and sanitation systems,” Brubaker said. “It’s a challenge to acquire the resources to make improvements to a community’s infrastructure. But when there’s uncertainty about a community’s future, all of that is just compounded.”

Beavers are not the only change along Wulik River. Villagers have watched the tundra on the mainland turn green, first with shrubs and then with willow trees. The higher vegetation traps snow and retards ground freeze. Thawing of permafrost has resulted in sink holes and erosion of river soil.

“The other health concerns are the river bank slumps all along the Wulik River,” said Millie Hawley, president of Kivalina’s tribal council, in an e-mail response to questions.

The community collects water through an intake pipe mounted on a skiff tied to the shore bank three miles from town. Riverbanks have collapsed and sloughed into the main stream, creating turbidity. They also release organic material that reacts unfavorably with chlorine injected at the treatment plant. It’s an example of climate change adding expense to operating infrastructure, Brubaker said.

“You design a water system, for example, and you expect it to perform under certain conditions for 20 or 30 years and those conditions are going to be the same,” Brubaker said. “What’s happening now is that a lot of things are different.”

Warming has meant a longer berry season, Hawley said.

“We harvest blackberries, cranberries, blueberries, and salmonberries,” she said. “We also live off those year round when we get enough.”

But villagers report that the useful period has shortened for drying fish, seal and caribou on drying racks.

Warming temperatures are making food security an issue at both Kivalina and Point Hope, 75 miles up the Chukchi Sea coast from Kivalina.

Both villages use ice cellars. Coast erosion at Point Hope has washed some away. Cellars now typically thaw in the summer, filling with water, resulting in unsafe meat and attracting scavengers such as polar bears.

Catching whales also is compromised. Hunters who formerly worked on a 12-foot thick platform are now seeing four feet. Three years ago, a huge slab of ice broke free and three Point Hope hunting crews were set adrift. The hunters returned by boat but their gear needed rescue by a helicopter.

Point Hope gets its water from a tundra lake seven miles away. When the lake thaws in late June, raw water is piped to a treatment plant and filtered. Operators work round the clock to produce about 8 million gallons to get the community through the year.

In 2007 and 2008, low precipitation and high temperatures led to an increase in biologic slime, possibly insect larvae and algae. In 2008, instead of cleaning filters four times per day, operators were doing it nearly 50 times. Colder temperatures had limited organic growth.

“There’s some benefits we’re seeing as well,” Brubaker said, noting a shorter flu season, more time to make potable water and a new food source if moose appear up in the high Arctic. “But most of the stuff we’re having to deal with is problems.”