While reading an article on Gather, something struck me as odd. The piece described how global warming was destroying a native village in western Alaska called Newtok. The article cited a CNN report lifted from the Warming Trends section of The New York Times. See Victim of Climate Change, a Town Seeks a Lifeline. The same story was repeated in Discover Magazine, The Nation and across the blogsphere.
What I found odd is there is nothing odd about what’s happening to Newtok and certainly nothing that qualifies a New York Times environmental reporter to declare its residents “the first climate refugees in the United States”. Here is what the NYT said:
“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.”
That’s what got my attention. Anyone who knows anything about polar regions knows that change in permafrost across an area as vast as Alaska is better seen by squinting through statistics than looking out your front door – and if per chance you see melting permafrost out your door, your house is in the wrong place.
Even the usually environment friendly news source Far North Science, shredded the NYT article. They cited the world’s foremost experts on permafrost monitoring, Vladimir Romanovsky:
The latest Alaska data suggests local permafrost has hardly changed during the past five years, despite warmer air temperatures and weather patterns. And these changes are measured on the scale of inches per half century — not anything you would notice.
So what is happening to Newtok? The scientific consensus is clear as northern light: the swift flowing and bank eating NingLick River south of town has taken a liking to the place. In other words, what is happening to Newtok is the same geological force that happens everywhere on the globe, if you build a house where a river wants to go, you better move it.
So what is The New York Times babbling on about? Here is one clue, the article quotes resident Frank Tommy:
“I don’t want to live in permafrost no more. It’s too muddy. Everything is crooked around here.”
and further down the column:
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.
So what does all this melting, mud and erosion have to do with global warming?
Not a thing. Coastal erosion is natural and has been happeing since the time of the glaciers, but the erosion in town is caused by something else entirely: European construction methods and land-use practices completely unsuited to polar regions.
In the Arctic, if you do not raise your suburban split-level on pilings sunk deep into the permafrost, it will instantly begin to melt its way through a thousand feet of frozen mud in the general direction of Australia.
And oh yeah, another thing — and guys, this is for you. After a beer party, don’t even think of strolling out onto the tundra to tinkle. For one thing, your pee will remain stinky fresh for a couple of thousand years which means drinking out of local streams is discouraged. For another, the very act of walking out to pee will squish down the natural insulation causing the permafrost to melt and the next time you wander off, you may stumble into a gigantic sink hole you never knew was there. The technical term for this is Therokarst, remember that. And that’s what is happening to Newtok.
So why is it happening while New York Times reporters are scouring the Arctic for dramatic signs of climate apocalypse? Like in the last couple decades?
Good question. You see, the Yup’ik people have lived in the area of Newtok since before the Romans built the open air stadium called the Coliseum, but the Yup’ik were migratory people who knew what happened when you tinkled in one place for too long and they didn’t go in for European things like sports stadiums. So for two thousand years, they wandered around, studiously avoiding the bank munching Ninglick River.
Then came a gaggle of bureaucrats from the State Of Alaska who went to college and knew a thing or two that the Yup’ik didn’t. These guys built a town because it was where they could land a barge for all the heavy construction equipment needed to create a real spiffy European style town, called Newtok.
I hope after reading the above, you can kind of figure out what happened next. So now the town has to move. This time, the Yup’ik elders said, “We’ll pick the spot” and they have, a nice site with a much better climate. So how far did the first climate refugees in the United States move? A whole nine miles. To Nelson Island. The place where their ancestors spent the summer.
So what about The New York Times and all that Climate Refugees stuff? New York Times? Enough said.
More HERE (See the original for links, graphics etc.)