North

Obama heads north of Arctic Circle as Alaska climate tour continues

President Barack Obama will see indigenous people living in conditions unimaginable to most Americans as he becomes the first sitting president to visit Alaska's Arctic — or, as it's more commonly known in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle.

Obama becomes first sitting president to head north of Arctic Circle as he visits community of Kotzebue

President Barack Obama looks at Bear Glacier, which has receded 1.8 miles in approximately 100 years, while on a boat tour to see the effects of global warming in Resurrection Cove, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015, in Seward, Alaska. Obama is on a historic three-day trip to Alaska aimed at showing solidarity with a state often overlooked by Washington, while using its glorious but changing landscape as an urgent call to action on climate change. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

President Barack Obama will see indigenous people living in conditions unimaginable to most Americans as he becomes the first sitting president to visit Alaska's Arctic — or, as it's more commonly known in Canada, north of the Arctic Circle.

Obama's visit Wednesday to the Alaska Arctic is meant to showcase the havoc he says human-influenced climate change is wreaking on Alaska's delicate landscape. It will also shed a rare spotlight on the plight of Alaska Natives, who are witnessing entire rural villages sinking into the ground as permafrost thaws, protective sea ice melts and temperatures climb.

One village has even voted to move inland to more solid land, though that threatens their traditional way of life.

Alaska Natives have joined the president in sounding the alarm on climate change. Yet the obstacles they confront daily in rural Alaska extend far deeper, raising questions about whether the federal government has done enough to help some of the most destitute U.S. citizens. In large swaths of rural Alaska, indigenous people empty waste-filled honey buckets into nearby sewage lagoons.

President Barack Obama greets a baby through a window in downtown Seward, Alaska. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Even as Obama has sought to improve conditions for Native Americans in recent years, Alaska Natives have received less attention.

"The vast majority of Americans have no idea there are dozens of communities in Alaska that live like this," Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska said in an interview. "It's unacceptable, and we need to do more to fix it."

Outside of Kotzebue, something of a regional hub where Obama will close his three-day tour of Alaska with a speech Wednesday, more than 32 per cent of people in the Alaska Arctic lack complete plumbing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. One in five doesn't have a proper kitchen. This is a life of subsistence hunting for bowhead whales, walruses and seals, a proud tradition of dependence on the land that poses immense logistical challenges.

With no roads to their scattered villages, residents depend on boats, snowmobiles and bush planes — weather permitting — to ferry them to rare doctor visits or other business.

At the same time, temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as anywhere else on earth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has said. Permafrost, the layer of frozen ice under the surface, is thawing and causing homes, pipes and roads to sink as the soil quickly erodes. Some 100,000 Alaskans live in areas vulnerable to melting permafrost, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by a National Park Service employee looks at Bear Glacier on Sept. 1. Today, Obama will head to the community of Kotzebue, in the process becoming the first sitting president to travel north of the Arctic Circle. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

And in coastal Alaska, sea ice that once offered critical protection is melting, exposing coastlines, causing more extreme ocean storm surges and risking mass emergency evacuations.

The 400 or so residents of Kivalina, an Arctic town on a skinny barrier island along the Chukchi Sea, have decided they have no choice but to pick up and move.

Kivalina and about a dozen other rural villages have voted to relocate to more stable terrain inland despite the hurdles it presents in maintaining their traditions. Hunting marine mammals, for instance, is far tougher when you no longer live along the water, said Robin Bronen, a senior research scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

"What we're facing is real," said Millie Hawley, president of the Native Village of Kivalina, the tribal council. "It is threatening our livelihood, our culture, our way of life. We are a people who are able to adapt to changes, but we need to move our village."

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