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Native Alaskans Feel the Heat of Global Warming

Native Alaskans have seen many changes in the last century. Many have been converted by Christian missionaries. Their hand-made canoes have been replaced by motorboats. And their meager existence has been supplemented by government assistance. Despite these outside influences, Alaskans have been able to maintain reliance on their traditional way of life. But that could soon change. As VOA's Brian Padden reports, conditions attributed to global warming are now threatening the environment itself.

Mike Williams has spent much of his life on the Kushokwim River in the western region of sub-arctic Alaska. He says rising temperatures during the last decade have been melting the permafrost layer of Earth, causing increased erosion. Bethel, Alaska and other towns have had to constantly reinforce their sea walls.

"Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on this erosion control program for Bethel, Alaska."

Nipaciak and other smaller villages had to be totally relocated. Mr. Williams points out where the villages once stood. "This used to be a village here and because of the erosion, it had wiped it out and people are moving way back."

Williams is a leader of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, which represents 229 native Alaskan tribes. He is a Yupiaq Eskimo, a tribe of native Alaskans who have survived here on the outskirts of the tundra for thousands of years. Most still rely on hunting and fishing done in the summer months to sustain them during the winter freeze.

The Elders of the tribes have witnessed many changes to their traditional way of life over the years, such as motorized vehicles to get around, and government assistance to augment their meager existence. But they say global warming is changing the environment itself. Seventy-seven year-old James Willie says even the snow is not the same. "It was a different cold. Snow wasn't, you know, it's just like feather. When it got a little bit warm it melted away fast."

Williams describes Katie Kernak as his wife's grandmother. She says the biggest change brought on by the warmer, dryer climate has been forest fires in recent years. "When she was growing up she never used to hear about any fires at all. But now in the summer it is smoky and there are all kinds of fires."

Williams says what may seem like small changes are having a major impact. The forest fires threaten delicate ecosystems. The warmer snow and thinner ice are making crossing the river more dangerous. And climate change is also affecting the wildlife, altering migration routes and feeding habits.

"It has a huge impact and little changes in climate makes a whole lot of difference on our lives. "

Williams says unless action is taken on a global scale, this way of life in the Alaskan wilderness could end.

Note: Not all scientists agree that global warming is connected to the extreme weather changes we showed you in the story ... or that rising temperatures will have catastrophic effects. Some dispute the rate of rising temperatures and sea levels and say the scientific community should refrain from making premature and alarmist predictions. See our other reports in this series.