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Climate Change Endangers Alaska's Coastal Villages

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - At risk from surging storm waves and floods, Alaska's coastal villagers are dealing with the immediate consequences of climate change -- threats to their health, safety and even their ancestors' graves.

The rapid erosion of the state's coastline is blamed on the scarcity of sea ice and thawing of permafrost. Without solid ice to shield the land, and without hard-frozen conditions to keep it held fast, encroaching waves and floods easily carve large chunks from shorelines or riverbanks.

"People are dying and getting injured as a result of trying to engage in traditional activities in much-changing conditions," said Deborah Williams, a former Interior Department official who heads an Alaska organization focused on climate change.

Alaska is heating up more dramatically than other regions because increases in temperature are accelerated in the far north, according to climate scientists.

That is largely because of a self-reinforcing warming cycle: the melt of white snow and disappearance of white ice exposes more dark land and water, which in turn absorb more solar radiation, which in turn causes more melting.

In Newtok, a village on Alaska's western coast, floods routinely spread human waste from portable toilets -- a necessity due to the lack of running water -- across the community.

Village administrator Stanley Tom links the sewage spread to a rise in infants being hospitalized for upper-respiratory infections like pneumonia over a 10-year period.

In the villages along northwest Alaska's Norton Sound, fall storms are bringing floods that turn land-based communities into islands.

Shaktoolik, a Bering Sea village that is one of the last checkpoints in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, becomes an island during heavy storms due to erosion that has erased much of the land link to the rest of the Seward Peninsula.

"They have no option to leave the community in the event of a storm," said Steve Ivanoff, tribal administrator of nearby Unalakleet, who says the increased intensity of flooding is also a problem in his village.

Residents in Unalakleet are starting to relocate their homes to the inland hills, away from the traditional coastal community, he said.

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