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(Photo: Jon Rosales)  Shaktoolik in January, from the air as you'd approach the village. It sits on a gravel bar no more than 80 yards wide.
(Photo: Jon Rosales) Shaktoolik in January, from the air as you'd approach the village. It sits on a gravel bar no more than 80 yards wide.

SLU Professor calls for climate assistance for Alaskan villages

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Delegates from nearly 200 countries have been meeting over the past two weeks in South Africa for the United Nations Convention on climate change. St. Lawrence University professor Jon Rosales just returned from Durban. He's been advocating on behalf of villages on the Bering Strait, on the west coast of Alaska, which are the focus of his research. Julie Grant has more.

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Some Alaskans don’t like this time of year anymore.  The fall has become a time of intense storms. 

St. Lawrence University environmental studies professor Jon Rosales and his students have been interviewing residents in two villages. 

Carole Sookiayak is a resident of Shaktoolik.  She says there were few storms when she was growing up.

"It was calm, I remember that.  It was calm all the time.  Now I don’t even like to think about August, because it’s on the way to winter."

In a video posted on YouTube, you can see the water pounding the seawall, covering roadways, closing in on people’s homes.

Rosales and his students interviewed Tonia Sagoonik, a young mother in Shaktoolik, about a similar storm that hit a few years ago.

"Shaktoolik looked like an island. As far as the eye could see, all you could see was water. You didn’t know how to be, emotional or what to do. Planes couldn’t come in, helicopters couldn’t come in. It was scary."

Researcher Jon Rosales says Shaktoolik and the Arctic are seeing these huge storms now because of climate change.

"The storm intensity is getting more intense, because the ocean is warmer.  Similar to the hurricanes that go through the Gulf.  If you remember Katrina when it crossed over Florida, it died down a bit.  But then when it hit the warm water of the Gulf it really blew up and magnified before it hit New Orleans.  Well the same thing is happening up there."

Rosales says that in 2009 the U.S. government released a report on weather extremes to be expected under climate change in the next 50 to 100 years.

"And what they found is, under a low emissions scenario, meaning if we cut back on our greenhouse gas emissions as much as we can, and we limit global warming to under 2-degrees, which is the international target right now, the Arctic, Alaska, should see about 4 more major storms after mid-November.  That in itself is not very good news.  If we continue business as usual, the Arctic could experience as much as twelve additional storms after mid-November."

Twelve huge storms in one winter. Rosales says some indigenous villages have already decided the weather has made their homelands unlivable.  But Rosales says it’s difficult for them to move – it’s expensive, and it would destroy their native culture.  They’re already being forced to make changes.  He says the sea ice is melting, so they can’t hunt walrus and seals the way their ancestors did for generations.

"In Savoonga, for example, they used to go right out of their village, maybe 5-10 miles.  But starting in the 1990s, they had to continually go further and further, and now recently, they’ve been going out 100 miles."

Rosales says they’re going into Arctic waters with increasingly unpredictable weather, to hunt these mammals at the edge of the ice.

"So they’re scared. They, in turn, are incurring more costs for fuel to get out that far.  They’re not taking their young ones, to continue the tradition in their culture, because it’s not safe, and they need to concentrate more and more on their hunting, so they can’t be distracted with teaching the next generation how to hunt, they need to concentrate and be successful each time they go out."

Rosales says these people are climate victims – they didn’t cause the warming, but they’re being hurt by it. 

"These Americans up there, they are indigenous, oftentimes we think of them as other, but they’re not, they’re Americans.  And that’s why I call my project Alaskans Sharing Indigenous Knowledge, they, too, are part of us."

Rosales says Alaskan villages haven’t been eligible for international assistance because the United States didn’t sign onto the Kyoto Protocol.  One village Kivalina, isn’t waiting for help.  They’re suing Exxon Mobil for 400-million dollars for climate damages.  The case was heard last week by the U.S. 9th Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

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