The agony of Earth’s hottest year: ‘I miss that cold-cold weather’
SHISHMAREF, Alaska — Sick of the cold? Tired of ice? This little Eskimo village — about 30 miles from the Arctic Circle — would gladly take a dose of both.
“I miss that cold-cold weather,” said Hazel Fernandez, 62. “It’s too weird. It’s too warm.”
Outside, Shishmaref, Alaska, looked like this:
My phone showed the temperature at 24 degrees Fahrenheit.
But that felt downright steamy to Fernandez and others.
She was wearing sneakers instead of insulated boots or sealskin mittens.
Old timers prefer weather that’s 20 or 30 below.
Globally, 2016 is expected to be the hottest on record — breaking the record set in 2015, which broke the record from the year before that. (Breitbart News and others are cherry picking data to tell you otherwise.) In all, scientists say humans have warmed the planet about 1 degree Celsius since around the time of the Industrial Revolution. This heat, which we’re causing by burning fossil fuels and trapping warmth in the atmosphere, is contributing to a host of dangerous weather around the world. A flood this August in Louisiana, for example, killed 13 people. Scientists say that event was made 40% more likely — and 10% more intense — because of climate change.
Perhaps nowhere are the consequences more apparent than here in the Arctic, which is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. In mid-November, temperatures across the far north were up to 35 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, shocking scientists.
On December 22, the North Pole was a stunning 50 degrees above average.
The heat comes with dire consequences.
In August, this 560-person village voted to relocate because this barrier island is melting. The permafrost is thawing out from beneath homes, and huge chunks of the coast are crumbling.
To understand the toll this takes, visit the tiny blue house at the edge of the land.
There, I found Shelton Kokeok, 72, sitting at a kitchen table and staring out the window at the Chukchi Sea. The water looked like snow-cone slush on December 19.
“It’s not frozen, it’s not frozen,” he said, sounding distraught. “You better not take a walk out there. That ice should be solid — thick and solid now. It used to be really cold.”
The slush is a personal affront to Kokeok. Freakishly warm temperatures have melted the ocean and the coastline, causing one of his neighbor’s homes to topple off the edge. Most of his other neighbors moved their homes across the island and farther from danger. The sea ice helps protect the island from storms, so Kokeok doesn’t feel safe until it’s solid.
It’s been freezing far later and thawing far earlier.
Arctic sea ice tied 2007 for its second-lowest extent this year.
On the coffee table in his living room, Kokeok keeps a photo of his son, Norman. On June 2, 2007, he fell through thin ice on a hunting trip and died.
Kokeok blames warming for taking his son’s life.
Elders in the village told me the ice where he was hunting should have been solid then.
Kokeok would rather stay at his perch at the edge of the Earth, but residents voted — 89 to 78 — to get out. It’s unclear when that will happen or how much it will cost, said Annie Weyiouanna, who is coordinating the move for the local tribe.
In December, no one was packing.
There’s been no funding dedicated to relocation, Weyiouanna said.
It’s difficult to overstate the significance of that vote. Shishmaref has been here for 400 years, and before that the community was nomadic, seeking out the best spots along this coast to hunt seal, walrus and caribou and to gather orange and red tundra berries. Locals still live off the land. You’ll find seal oil — made from blubber — in most homes. There’s no running water or sewage, so locals harvest giant chunks of ice and melt it for drinking water.
It’s a hard life, but one rich in culture and meaning.
We’re putting that in jeopardy by using fossil fuels.
We’re also putting ourselves at risk. No matter where we live, the consequences of a human-warmed climate are here — and will get far, far worse if we don’t switch to cleaner forms of energy. Shishmaref may seem far and away, but harsher-droughts, worse floods, failed crops, mass extinction and climate refugees will be all of our problem.
Visiting the Arctic is simply a window into the future of climate change if we fail to act.
I met Rodriguez, the woman who misses the “cold-cold” weather, in a community hall in Shishmaref on a recent morning in December. Her friend Susie Nayokpuk was wearing a pink T-shirt and selling pull-tab lottery tickets. She’d rather be ice fishing, she said, but the sea wasn’t frozen.
“It’s the world changing, I guess,” she said.
Yes, and we are the ones changing it.