Guest essay by Jim Steele, Director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University.
On July 29, 2013 the BBC’s Hardtalk journalist Stephen Sackur wrote “The Alaskan village set to disappear under water in a decade.” He opened the story with “within a decade Kivalina is likely to be under water. Gone, forever. Remembered – if at all – as the birthplace of America’s first climate change refugees.” He then quotes a local who laments, “The US government imposed this Western lifestyle on us, gave us their burdens and now they expect us to pick everything up and move it ourselves. What kind of government does that?”
Given the context, such a statement sounds like the locals were feeling abandoned by global warming. But the tone also reminded me of the complaints by many native Arctic people who were relocated by the US, Canadian and Russian governments in a 20th century battle to secure claims to Arctic territory. Such a vulnerable location seemed odd for a permanent settlement.. Sure enough Wikipedia supported my suspicions Kitvalina. The original village was located at the north end of the Kivalina Lagoon but was relocated to its present location in about 1900. Reindeer were brought to the area and some people were trained as reindeer herders, suggesting there as a government attempt to force a permanent settlement. From the history I can glean on the internet “the people of Kivalina, like the Ipiutak before them, utilized the barrier reef only as seasonal hunting grounds, making camp there in warm-weather months.” Their recent plans to relocate due to erosion and an expanding population are opportunistically blamed on global warming.
The Arctic people have long been victimized by “southern people’s” politics. Relocation of indigenous families became a tactic employed by all the “polar bear countries” in an international chess match to stake claims on Arctic resources. In 1925, Denmark relocated families in Greenland to counter any Norwegian claims to the island. The following year the Soviet government moved a small Eskimo community to Wrangel Island in order to replace an occupation of Alaskan Eskimos that had been established there by American interests. The relocation of families was also a crucial cold-war tactic by Canada to insure their claims on the Arctic, but not just against any Russian threats, but more so from perceived encroachments by the United States.631
In 1944, Henry Larsen, a staff sergeant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, became the first to navigate the Northwest Passage from the west to east and back again. This celebrated feat greatly strengthened Canada’s claims to Arctic lands, and offset any potential Scandinavian claims based on Norway’s Roald Amundsen’s successful crossing of Canada’s Northwest Passage in 1903-06. However the US military bases built during World War II were now perceived as a threatening foothold. So in the 1950s Larsen was put in charge of relocating several Inuit families to Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay in the far northern reaches of the Canadian Arctic. Grise Fiord is known by its Inuit name that means “the place that never thaws.” Although these were strategic places in ongoing international maneuverings, it was a region long abandoned by the Inuit’s ancestors. Government stories of an unspoiled land where hunting was more bountiful enticed Inuit families to leave the milder climates of their villages along the central Hudson Bay. Government officials sealed the deal by suggesting there was absolutely no risk and promised a swift return passage if the families found their new settlement unsatisfactory.
But it was a promise that Canadian officials never intended to keep. Ironically, the woman who played Nanook’s wife in the popular 1930s documentary “Nanook of the North” and her son (who was fathered by the documentary’s producer) were among the families relocated to Grise Ford. Although “Nanook of the North” had enthralled Americans and Europeans with a glamorized depiction of Inuit resilience and adaptability, their new settlements doled out such incredible hardships their resilience was severely tested. The struggles of those families have now been well documented in the book, The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival. It was the film producer’s granddaughter, daughter of his half-Inuit, half-Caucasian son, who finally forced the Canadian government to own up to their betrayal. The Canadian government finally made a public apology in 2008 and paid reparations to the offended families.
Sackur’s article continues the long tradition of half-truths. To indict climate change he wrote:
- “Kivalina’s story is not unique. Temperature records show the Arctic region of Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the United States.”
- “Retreating ice, slowly rising sea levels and increased coastal erosion have left three Inuit settlements facing imminent destruction, and at least eight more at serious risk.”
- “No longer does thick ice protect their shoreline from the destructive power of autumn and winter storms.”
However his story relies on zombie data. It was indeed true that Alaska had been warming twice as fast as elsewhere. In a 2012 paper climate scientists from Alaska Climate Research Center, University of Alaska reported, “a sudden temperature increase in Alaska was recorded starting in 1977, seemingly driven by the change in polarity of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) Index, which went from dominantly negative before 1977 to dominantly positive values after that year” However unlike Sackur they also reported for the 21st century ” The mean cooling of the average of all stations was 1.3°C for the decade”1 Alaska is now one the most rapidly cooling areas on earth.
Sackur’s reference to “slowly rising sea levels” are also questionable. Go to the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level website and view the 2 stations nearest to Kitvalina. At Nome Alaska the sea level is rising so slow it appears to be dropping over the last decade.
Or look at Prudhoe Bay .
Except for a brief surge for a few months in late 2013, Prudhoe Bay sea level has been dropping there as well. The shifting PDO is also known to change sea level across the Pacific Ocean.
Finally it is hard to understand Sackur’s claim, “No longer does thick ice protect their shoreline.” In 2012 the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported “ice extent in the Bering Sea was much greater than average, reaching the second-highest levels for January in the satellite record.” NASA’s Earth Observatory wrote, “For most of the winter of 2011–2012, the Bering Sea has been choking with sea ice… NSIDC data indicate that ice extent in the Bering Sea for most of this winter has been between 20 to 30 percent above the 1979 to 2000 average. February 2012 had the highest ice extent for the area since satellite records started.” And in 2013 Bering Sea ice was again above normal as seen in National Snow and Ice Data Center picture.
So why has the BBC published this story filled with references to zombie data and half-truths? The region’s temperatures are cooling, sea level is dropping and sea ice is above average. The story about Kivalina has been published many times before and residents sued Exxon six years ago. Are they trying to rekindle global fear in a time of paused global warming? Are they now tools of the IPCC? Climategate emails revealed Michael Mann’s distress at a BBC’s story that the PDO could delay global warming, and he told his fellow advocates he would have a talk with their “science” writers. Did Michael Mann and the fellow IPCC warming advocates successfully pressure the BBC to present such a biased and unsupported story that does not educate the public about the complexities of climate change but instead attempts to instill gloom and climate fear? I once saw the BBC as a trusted source, but count me as a climate war casualty. I will never again trust another BBC climate article.
1. Wendler,G., et al. (2012) The First Decade of the New Century: A Cooling Trend for Most of Alaska. The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2012, 6, 111-116
Mr. Steele is author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism