Global Warming Washing Away Entire Communities

A funny thing happened just before a ceremony was to be held last week to commemorate a $3 million sea wall around the village of Kivalina way up on Alaska's Arctic coastline. The village, home to Inupiat natives for 4,000 years, is about to be washed into the sea, and the 1,800-foot wall is supposed to stop that.

But along came a modest storm, with winds of up to 40 miles per hour, and 160 feet of the wall washed out. The ceremony was canceled.

You're right. It's not funny.

Kivalina is one of an estimated 200 villages in the far North, fighting for survival, and at least three, including this historic community, may be lost within the next decade. The reasons are many, but a growing body of research suggests that global warming is at least partly to blame. There is less ice along the Arctic coastline because of warming ocean temperatures, and thus, less protection from relentless winter storms that undermine the coastal area.

It's sad, because it affects people who have closer ties to Mother Earth than most of us. As they have for many generations, the Inupiats depend on hunting and fishing for their livelihood, both of which are also threatened by global climate change. Ironically, their distant ancestors came to this narrow spit of land each winter because it offered them the best chance for survival. Now, Kivalina itself is doomed.

But it's not alone. Kivalina is sort of like New Orleans in cold storage. Both face enormous odds in the years ahead. But each story will have a different ending. The people of Kivalina will have to move somewhere else. Anywhere else. After all, who's going to cough up the billions of dollars that it would take to relocate the residents of a bunch of Alaskan villages.

New Orleans will be rebuilt, at least partly. Few dare even ask the question, "Is it worth it?"

That's unfortunate, because that question is going to have to be asked over and over again, in areas from Miami to Kivalina, from New York City to San Diego.

Scientists have made their case. Global warming is real. Now it's time to address the really hard decisions. How are we going to deal with it in the years ahead? Even if we were successful in reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases, which doesn't seem likely at this point, the planet would continue to warm.

It's time for community leaders from city hall to the White House to take center stage away from the scientists and apply the same level of energy and dedication to addressing the problems that will inevitably come. Science and technology will play a role in solving those problems, but the tough decisions are shifting to the political front.

Does it make any sense to allow continued high density developments along the nation's coastline? Are some areas just too vulnerable to hurricanes and coastal erosion? Should New Orleans be saved? How about Kivalina?

And here's one more: How much time do we have?

Probably a lot less than we think. There is mounting evidence that changes in global climate will feed upon each other, and nowhere is that more evident than in the Arctic. Warmer winters are causing the permafrost to melt, which in turn, releases more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, which causes the temperature to go up, ad infinitum.

Millions of acres of Alaska's forests have been wiped out in recent years because warmer winters have allowed insects, particularly spruce beetles, to thrive, turning once-green forests into brown morgues.

We aren't going to be able to stop that, but it may be possible to slow it down. And one idea shows just how desperate the situation has become.

Since the 1970s, scientists have talked about taking bold initiatives to counteract our sins of the past and gain control over the weather. Maybe we could build our own volcanoes that would spew tons of climate-cooling sulfates into the upper atmosphere each year to offset the greenhouse gas emissions.

This nuclear winter scenario would require injecting about as much stuff into the upper atmosphere as the eruption of Mt. Pintabuto in 1991, according to researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

That might gain us about 20 years before it all hits the fan, according to the researchers, who say they aren't pushing for this program, although their computer model says it would help.

But the scientists themselves are probably worried about the most likely outcome. More politicians would decide to put off any solutions for 20 years.

These difficult decisions need not be met with panic, unless they are delayed too long. But it will require cooperation on a national level that has been rarely seen in the past. And that won't be easy to accomplish because not everybody faces the same kind of problems from global climate change.

The town I live in is also in Alaska, more than 1,000 miles from Kivalina. Frankly, I could use a little global warming, and the consequences here are likely to be mild, at least compared to Kivalina.

And some communities will clearly benefit from global warming. More rain in some areas will mean better farming.

But weather will probably become more unpredictable, even if we build a few artificial volcanoes, and storms will likely be more powerful. It's not the end of the world, but it could all be made a lot easier if political leaders would do the hard thing and make the tough decisions.

We have a little time. We need to use it wisely.