UPDATE: A companion essay to this one, showing how Alaska’s 30 year period of warmth is a product of ocean cycles and now coming to an end is now online here.
“America’s First Climate Refugees” are actually a victim of a poorly executed previous government relocation program in 1959 and a change in ocean patterns in 1976.
Some days you just have to laugh at these clowns. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg seems to be in a clown class by herself when it comes to totally botching a story. I suspect her emotions got the better of her. For example, what are the odds that this photo was staged?
Such photo manipulation of children by the press has happened before. Flooded area? Hardly. It’s a permafrost puddle, one of thousands in the region around Newtok as part of the natural landscape, though this one may be the result of human influence on the permafrost. Note the concrete remnants.
Here, in this photo from the Fish and Wildlife Service, you can see what I’m speaking of.
Permafrost is a powerful influence on tundra life. In summer, it traps a layer of water close to the surface, keeping many tundra soils soggy. It cools the soil and the roots of tundra plants, slowing decomposition and growth. Its presence influences freeze-thaw cycles, forming unique tundra landforms.
Polygons (pictured to the right) form when soil contraction creates cracks that collect water above the permafrost layer. This water then freezes and expands, forming ice wedges that force the cracks to widen. Years pass and the process repeats, dry winter cold widening cracks, and summer thaws providing water. Joined across the landscape, these cracks create a network of polygons.
In fact if you look at the aerial photos of region around Newtok, you’ll note it is a close match to the USF&W description, that is, when it isn’t a frozen city:
Note all the human habitation. Here’s what USF&W says about that and permafrost:
Where the insulating layer of plant material has been removed, permafrost melts and the ground above slumps. This is called thermokarst slumping, and it can be a big problem where humans have disturbed the soils.
Goldenberg of course thought nothing of those chunks of old concrete the child was standing on, preferring to blame global warming instead. She probably had to, since it is likely she made the pitch to Guardian editors based on that. I can’t imagine her getting funding for the trip to document some “Thermokarst Slumping”. Yeah that’ll fly. No we need climate refugees.
What is most interesting is that that villagers didn’t choose to live there, they were forced to by the Alaskan government, they were refugees back in 1959:
The Yup’iks, who had lived in these parts of Alaska for hundreds of years, had traditionally used the area around present-day Newtok as a seasonal stopping-off place, convenient for late summer berry picking.
Even then, their preferred encampment, when they passed through the area, was a cluster of sod houses called Kayalavik, some miles further up river. But over the years, the authorities began pushing native Alaskans to settle in fixed locations and to send their children to school.
It was difficult for supply barges to manoeuvre as far up river as Kayalavik. After 1959, when Alaska became a state, the new authorities ordered villagers to move to a more convenient docking point.
Hmm, I’ll trust the Yup’iks to know better where to camp, after all, they had thousands of years of experience before the bureaucrat tribe set foot in Alaska. When you get relocated to an island surrounded by running rivers on all sides, do you think erosion might be a problem in your future?
Then, Goldenberg tries to convince readers of the global warming threat with this temperature graph (showing much of the year being below normal)
But, when you look at Alaska as a whole in this graph from the Alaska Climate research Center, temperature is trending down since about 2000 and is below normal for 2012:
Since Newtok is in what the Alaska Climate Research Center describes as “maritime”, and only about 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, you can safely bet the climate there is closely linked with ocean temperatures.
Note that in the graph above, about 1976, the temperature of Alaska changed dramatically. Why?
Perhaps this paper will tell us more: Hartmann and Wendler 2005 “The Significance of the 1976 Pacific Climate Shift in the Climatology of Alaska.”
I have a definitive essay from Bob Tisdale coming up next that I’ve been sitting on for months, for just this occasion, that will show that the “global warming” that Goldenberg claims is ruining towns in Alaska, is really all about a change in ocean patterns.
With what looks to be another climate shift in the making now, what will a colder future do for this problem in Alaska?
Finally, about that erosion.
Here is the Corp of Engineers report Goldenberg references:
A study by the US Army Corps of Engineers on the effects of climate change on native Alaskan villages, the one that predicted the school would be underwater by 2017, found no remedies for the loss of land in Newtok.
That report makes no mention of “global warming” being the cause of the issues at Newtok either in the summary or the conclusions. They say it is erosion, enhanced by “thermal degradation”, something you’d expect in a village that has disturbed the soil and has gone from heating their homes naturally (in those upriver sod houses pre-1959) to now using heating oil as evidenced by the oil tanks in the lead photo from the Guardian article and in the Google Earth imagery. Apparently the river is silting up making delivery a problem, from Anchorage Daily News:
One of Alaska’s most eroded coastal villages is facing a new crisis: the closest river has gotten so shallow that barges can no longer make regular fuel deliveries to the remote community.
The Corp of Engineers says about the erosion:
Newtok’s riverine erosion on the Ninglick River is aggravated by wave action and thermal degradation of the ice-rich riverbank. The long-term, average erosion rate is 71 feet per year, with peak erosion of approximately 113 feet in a single year. The community is experiencing almost annual flooding and has a water supply contaminated by flood-driven sewage spills. Severe damage is expected within 10 years. The community is actively involved in relocating and is pursuing several
projects to relocate as quickly as possible.
My view is that Newtok was a bad place for the government to relocate the Yup’iks to in the first place, and all was likely fine for awhile, but then the soil was disturbed, permafrost issues like “Thermokarst Slumping” took hold in that small area of habitation, the soil started to weaken and become more prone to erosion, waste heat and other issues associated with the habitation exacerbated the issue, and then the Pacific Climate Shift of 1976 kicked it, long before James Hansen started wailing about the threat of global warming in 1988.
Do you think the Yup’iks would be labeled “climate refugees” by an climate activist reporter today if they were still living upriver where they originally preferred to be? Looks like a clear case of the Prime Directive being violated and resulting in a government created mess to me.
Of course beach erosion in Alaska isn’t new. The only thing that new is activist disguised as reporter Suzanne Goldenberg thinks there’s a news story about global warming there.
See this from climatologist Dr. Pat Michaels in 2007:
World Climate Report » Settling on an unstable Alaskan shore: A warning unheeded
In earlier times, when the Inuit were more nomadic, they simply would have broken camp and moved to a more suitable location. In fact, the historical scientific literature contains references to abandoned Inuit camps located on the precipices of an eroding coast. For instance, Gerald MacCarthy, in an article published in Arctic in 1953 entitled “Recent Change in the Shoreline Near Point Barrow, Alaska” wrote:
At ‘Nuwuk’ [Point Barrow] the evidence of rapid retreat is especially striking. The abandoned native village of the same name, which formerly occupied most of the area immediately surrounding the station site, is being rapidly eaten away by the retreat of the bluff and in October 1949 the remains of four old pit dwellings, then partially collapsed and filled with solid ice, were exposed in cross section in the face of the bluff. In 1951 these four dwellings had been completely eroded away and several more exposed.
Coming up next, Bob Tisdales essay on The Significance of the 1976 Pacific Climate Shift in the Climatology of Alaska.
Goldenberg would do well to read it before she traipses off to another Alaskan village to declare them “climate refugees”.