The other day I wrote a post describing how the National Media Council dismissed a complaint from a Toronto Star reader that arose from a New York Times story detailing climate change’s impact on the people of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. The reader objected to the fact that climate change was cited as a reason the residents are facing relocation.
The judgement was that there was no need to provide a counterbalance, as the complainant insisted, on the climate change assertions made in the story; the Council declared that climate change is a fact that has been scientifically established, and hence junk science alternatives were not required for balance.
The fact of climate change is evident for anyone who cares not to indulge in willful ignorance. Increasingly intense storms, floods, droughts, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity and wildfires are attested to in the media almost daily; it seems we have crossed a line, and the changes are happening far more rapidly than predicted by the models.
A case clearly in point is what is happening to the people of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost municipality in the United States, now facing the prospect of becoming climate-change refugees.
Warming air, melting permafrost and rising sea levels are threatening their coastline, and researchers predict that by midcentury, the homes, schools and land around Barrow and its eight surrounding villages will be underwater. This despite decades of erecting barriers, dredging soil and building berms to hold back the water.
“The coastline is backing up at rates of 10 to 20 metres per year,” says Robert Anderson, a University of Boulder geomorphologist who has studied Alaska’s landscape evolution since 1985 and who first noticed in the early 2000s how alarming the erosion was becoming. “It’s baffling.”
When the sea ice melts, the coast becomes exposed to waves, wind and storms that slam into the shore, causing erosion. As ice moves farther from shore, waves can be six-metres high when they reach land, Anderson says.
“The only thing we can do, as far as I’m concerned, is move our towns inland,” says Mike Aamodt, the former acting mayor of Barrow and its surrounding villages of the North Slope Borough, which stretches over 230,000 square kilometres, an area larger than Southern Ontario.
Yet another danger the residents face is posed by a thawing permafrost:
As air and sea temperatures have notched up, there has been a warming of the permafrost, the thousands-of-years-old subsurface layer of frozen soil, rocks and water. That layer can be as much as 600 metres deep in parts of this area.
“Sometimes I have that eerie feeling — I’m, like, ‘Oh gosh, we’re on the permafrost,’ ” says Diana Martin, a Barrow-born Inupiaq who works in the town’s museum, over a bowl of caribou soup at her sister’s home a little more than a kilometre from the coast. “What if we start floating away?”
Adaptation has not worked in Barrow, and the remaining alternative, relocation, is fraught with problems, not the least of which are the costs that would be involved in such a migration:
One of Barrow’s nearby villages, Point Lay, “is (a mere) 400 people, 40 houses, big buildings, an underground utility system, pipes,” he says. But it’s “probably $500 million to move that town. Then we have Wainwright: We need to move that town, too. It’s on a bluff right against the ocean. That’s 700 people, so I imagine $700 (million) to $800 million.”
So the grave problems caused by human activity and indulgences are continuing apace, with no real plans for either mitigation or adaptation. It is all well and good, for example, for Barack Obama to call for $10 billion annually to combat climate change, but as you can see in the case of Barrow and surrounding Alaskan communities, that amount will prove a mere pittance in the very near future.