TUKTOYAKTUK, Northwest Territories: Caught between rising seas and land melting beneath their mukluk-shod feet, the villagers of Tuktoyaktuk are doing what anyone would do on this windy Arctic coastline. They're building windmills.
That's wind-power turbines, to be exact — a token first try at "getting rid of this fossil fuel we're using," said Mayor Merven Gruben.
Climate changes are happening more rapidly at the Arctic. Ironically, the Inuit are not to blame for global warming, but they feel it most. Now they are doing more to stop global warming than many of "you people in the south," as Gruben calls the rest of us who fill the skies with greenhouse gases.
A wide circle of 300,000 indigenous peoples at the top of the world are worrying and suffering. From Alaska through the Siberian tundra, and from northern Scandinavia and Greenland to Canada's eastern Arctic islands, the population is feeling its effects. This includes Gruben and the 800 other Inuvialuit, or Inuit, of the village they know as "Tuk."
In the past, the resilient Inuit -- Eskimos -- simply moved on to better places. But since the mid-20th century they've been tied to settlements, with all the buildings, utilities, roads and trouble that represents in a warming world.
In recent memory, before barriers were built, the sea was eroding about a meter of Tuk's beach each year. At Tuk's graveyard, for example, white crosses stand akilter where the permafrost has heaved and sunk below. "In another 20 years I'll be burying my relatives again," said Gus Gruben, 45.
Just yards away, the sound of Tuk eroding could be heard as the Arctic Ocean crashed against a beach barrier of small boulders.
"Tuktoyaktuk Island is completely unprotected, exposed," said Steve Solomon, a government coastal geologist. "It's eroding at 2 meters (yards) a year."
This means more shore erosion in key spots, like Tuktoyaktuk Island, whose 30-foot cliffs protect the harbor mouth. Warming ocean waters are undercutting the cliffs' permafrost base. Solomon believes that at current erosion rates - and they may worsen as warming does -- the island will be reduced to a small shoal in 30 or 40 years.
Already, houses on shallow supports shift and tilt on a slowly liquefying base. "Every house has a problem eventually," said Merven Gruben. "Someday we'll all have to move to Reindeer Point," a cluster of houses on higher ground 3 miles inland. But Merven scoffs, "It's too far out. Siberia, they call it."
Tuk may serve as an early warning post for a warming planet. However, Gruben believes there's still time for "the people in the south" to take global action to stem the worst of warming. "I'm hopeful," Merven Gruben said. "I don't think it's too late."
Except, perhaps, for Tuk.
Eventually we have to
Gruben's grandson. "It's
a losing battle."