For hundreds of years, the Inuit people of Shishmaref, Alaska, have been salting, drying and freezing their food to preserve it for the cold, hard winters.
Then came recent decades of intense storms and changes in weather patterns, and now the inhabitants of the tiny, remote island must decide whether to abandon their homes or stay and fight the ever-encroaching footsteps of global warming.
“Alaska and the Arctic” is three stories that aired between March and August on CBS News, under the banner of producer Bruce Rheins, focusing on these areas both for wildlife preservation and global warming.
“Global Warming — Shishmaref” documents the effects of climate change on the indigenous islanders. “We wanted to put a human face on the first Americans being affected by global warming in a significant and drastic way,” said Mr. Rheins. “We wanted to take viewers and let them see the ‘canary in the coal mine,’ and what would be happening to them in the future.”
The remote location of Shishmaref has made it difficult for television crews to document the situation. “It’s kind of an arduous place to get to, and you just kind of live up there in little trailer bungalows,” Mr. Rheins said. “The Inuit people are very self-sufficient, left to themselves by necessity and neglect. But now the main thing seems to be the pattern and intensity of these storms, and what that’s doing is eroding the island. It’s crumbling away, and you can see the wreckage of people’s homes that have tumbled off the cliffs and onto the shore.”
Alaska remains the focus of the second piece in the CBS trilogy, “Bridge to Nowhere — Whales.” The pending and oft-maligned “Bridge to Nowhere” is actually two bridges: the Knik Arm Crossing, which would link Anchorage to a small port across a channel draining into the Pacific; and a second bridge that would connect tiny Ketchikan, Alaska, which boasts just over 8,000 residents, to tinier Gravina Island, which claims less than 50. The combined projects initially received a combined $454 million in a 2004 congressional transportation funding bill.
Caught between the planned construction of these controversial bridges is the beluga whale, which has declined in population from well over 1,000 last century to just under 300 today. The federal government has begun a study to see whether the whale qualifies as “endangered” or merely “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and local environmentalists fear the building of the bridges will damage the whales’ hearing and make their passage to the open seas more difficult.
The third piece, “Glacier Quakes,” reported on a study on the rapidly increasing number of glacial earthquakes in Greenland, caused by the sudden dislodging of huge blocks of ice. There were fewer than 15 glacial quakes in Greenland between 1993 and 2002, but in 2004, 24 were recorded; seismologists recorded 32 in the first 10 months of 2005. Using new graphics and tapes from previous trips to Greenland, the piece detailed ways in which warmer temperatures were melting the glacial ice sheets, with an inevitable rise in sea levels worldwide.
Mr. Rheins and cameraman Jerry Bowen have been doing stories about global warming since the 1990s, including a series of stories from the North Pole. They believe the Arctic is “ground zero” for global warming and many of the wildlife issues that threaten America and the rest of the world.
And what of the inhabitants of tiny Shishmaref? “The whole island is considering moving the entire town to the mainland,” Mr. Rheins said. “That means they have to abandon their homes, their livelihood, the place where their ancestors are buried. We wanted people to see how global warming is affecting an American town.”
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