Erosion affects rural Alaska on myriad levels
In a five part series, the Associated Press recently examined the impact of erosion in its various forms as well as the strengths of Alaskan rural communities and Alaska natives who have endured some of the harshest conditions on Earth for thousands of years... Winds and water continually wear away at scores of native communities. Every year whole chunks of land simply float away...
RACHEL D'ORO, Associated Press, December 24, 2006 - see full story at Anchorage Dailey News - www.adn.com/news/alaska/ap_alaska/
Perhaps the plight of rural Alaska can be summed up in the story of the beaver.
Patricia Cochran never saw the web-footed rodent during her childhood in Nome, an old gold-rush town halfway up the western Alaska coast. No one ever saw trees there either, that is, until residents began planting aspens and birch, and those and other alien plant-life firmly took hold in the warming region. Also multiplying along streams and lakes were brush willows and alders, choice fare for the beavers that followed.
"Before, there were no beavers there because there was no source of food for them," said Cochran, 57, executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission. "Now there are trees in people's front yards. The treeline has moved so much farther north that the beavers are now moving into the area..."
Cochran and others believe the beaver's expansion is but a symptom of rising temperatures that have brought other dramatic changes, including the pervasive erosion eating away at Native communities.
With change comes complications, as aptly manifested by the beaver. The animal is blamed for bringing disease, interrupting fish migration patterns and blocking navigation routes in areas it was never seen before. This voracious rodent is known to abandon overforaged or dried up sites.
Now, ecological shifts have given it more space, said Dave Klein, a biology professor emeritus with the University of Alaska Fairbanks... "Climate change is not affecting just part of the world. It's a global phenomenon," added Klein.
The repercussions, however, are drastic closer to the Arctic. This is where effects of warming have appeared with mounting intensity, partly because as snow and ice shrink, the terrain absorbs more heat instead of reflecting it.
In Alaska, warming climate is melting permanent sea ice, leaving coastal villages vulnerable to stronger storms and flooding, their shorelines and riverbanks washing away. Native subsistence hunters are traveling farther for seals and other icebound prey. Ancient graves are surfacing in village cemeteries. A handful of threatened communities are even planning expensive relocations.
Other regions also are prone to erosion and flooding, but Alaska is unlike any other place in the nation, said Bruce Sexauer, a senior planner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The corps investigates erosion and designs and builds solutions such as sea walls and breakwaters.
"The uniqueness is in the remoteness and high reliance upon natural resources for survival," Sexauer said. "The communities are hundreds of miles away from Anchorage, have no connection by road, rely heavily upon hunting and fishing for their food, and do not have the financial-based economies often needed to participate as cost sharing partners in federal programs."
Almost as widespread as erosion, the beaver's range has inched up the state over the past two decades. State wildlife officials say reports have placed the animals as far north as 140 miles above the Arctic Circle.
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