This paper was written as part of the 2010 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Problems facing the Alaskan costal community of Shishmaref as a direct result of retreating and thinning Arctic ice cap


Alexius King
Hayley Van De Bogart
Bethany Payne
Samantha Kuntzman

Mollusca Cephalopoda Nautilidae

Wasilla High School
701 East Bogard Road
Wasilla, Alaska 99654


Shishmaref is a small island located at 66 degrees 15 minutes North latitude and 166 degrees 4 minutes West longitude on the Chukchi Sea. Shishmaref is in a deteriorated condition due to global warming. Erosion rates due to rising sea level and resultant beach erosion are three to five feet per year. The Shishmaref community has established that because of beach erosion, life and property are threatened. The decision to move the entire village is the ultimate conclusion and is extremely expensive. Warming of the environment, erosion and flooding are annihilating the community structures. The thinning of sea ice from global warming has changed the biology/ecosystem, the social aspects, geological aspects, physical aspects, and the chemistry. Biological/ecological projected changes include distribution alterations in polar bears, ice pack-associated marine mammal behavior modifications, sea bird migrations differences, and food web shifts and species composition displacements. Ocean currents, timing of freeze up and ice characteristics are thought caused by the global warming. They change subsistence patterns of hunting and fishing. Preservation of native cultural aspects is becoming more difficult with the changes due to global warming. Increased use of ships in the open Arctic waters causes concerns for oil spill damage. Health impacts from the climate change include increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation and burning of skin a eyes as a result of heightened sun exposure. Oceanography technology can monitor some of these changes, including the increased sea surface height and the reduction in ice mass. Additionally, Global Positioning System can be used to monitor shoreline loss. Shishmaref may be an indicator to show the future for other parts of the world.


The village of Shishmaref is located at 66 degrees 15 minutes North latitude and 166 degrees 4 minutes West longitude across from the eastern most point of the former Soviet Union. The village is located on the Chukchi Sea and is on an island that is only three miles long and a quarter mile wide. Current erosion rates due to rising sea level and resultant beach erosion are three to five feet per year. The Shishmaref community has established that because of beach erosion, life and property are threatened. The decision to move the entire village is the ultimate extremely expensive conclusion. The global warming and thinning of sea ice have contributed significantly to changes in the biology/ecosystem, the social aspects, geological aspects, physical aspects, and the chemistry. Oceanography technology can be used to monitor some of the changes.

Biological/Ecosystem Changes

Biological and ecosystem changes due to global warming can occur in concurrence with the thinning sea ice and the coastal shoreline erosion of the Shishmaref village. Plants and animals are directly impacted as the shoreline is washed away at the rate of one or two meters per year. Animals that frequent the sea ice like polar bears are forced towards life on land or towards the remaining sea ice that will hold their weight. Both change their distribution and population densities. The marine mammals associated with the ice pack during parts of their lives will also be impacted. Bird migration and the timing are also potentially affected as land locations and extent are being modified. Also affected are salmon runs and animal/plant recolonizations. Changes in the food web otherwise associated with less algae on ice and changes in open water associations, shore vegetation, and extension/reduction of the ranges of invasive and indigenous species are projected.

Perspective on Salmon Runs and Colonization

As the ice thins, water levels increase, which bring salt water higher into streams and negatively affect where salmon can live and reproduce. Cold water fish such as salmon and trout thrive in streams with temperatures of 50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. In some places they already exist in the close ranges of 65 degrees F. The slightest warming could extinguish that habitat. Young salmon feed in steam beds for a short period of time, until they are strong enough to journey to the ocean to acquire more food.

The ocean absorbs one-fourth of the CO2 in the atmosphere from human activities each year. When this happens, ocean acidification occurs. This decreases the ability of many marine organisms to exist by physiological changes. Increasing acidification makes it hard for crustaceans to make and build shells. When crustaceans have weaker shells, not very many survive, and less food exists for animals that depend on them for nutrition. Many marine organisms are necessary for salmon growth in the ocean. The absorption of the CO2 impacts the health and physiology of the Pacific salmon.

Marine mammals associated with the ice pack

Pack ice is not anchored to land and moves with the oceans currents and winds. Alaska's marine waters are the most productive in the world. Some of the species that are being affected bye the thinning of sea ice is: arctic fox; ribbon, spotted, ringed bearded seals; polar bear; beluga and bowhead whales, and walrus. Each of these species of marine mammal requires a specific type of sea ice for breeding, migration, rearing, resting, molting, and to get food. Some predators will eat different items due to reduced food and different food availability.

When the ice melts, the hunting grounds for polar bears retreats and gives them less room to hunt from. When this ice platform decreases in size, their areas for breeding and feeding also decrease. Cubs in the spring depend on their mothers to have good hunting success. This depends on the stability and extent of the sea ice. Female polar bears have to go longer without sufficient food which impacts the polar bears' fat. Also, many polar bears have offshore dens on the ice pack.

Walruses follow the sea ice north. When the ice recedes, they have a harder time getting north and a narrower time frame in which to get there. It also affects their breeding and feeding. The pups and their mothers dive for food and when they get tried they use sea ice as a resting spot and platform. Another population reducing factor is with melting sea ice, walrus herds squeeze onto land and sometimes young walruses are crushed to death by huge males in the pack.

Bird migration

Habitat destruction from global warming represents one of the threats to bird migration. Feeding stops on migratory routes may change due to warming from changes in the sea ice characteristics, wind pattern alterations, and ocean current modifications. Many birds migrate from northern breeding areas to southern rearing grounds and migration patterns that could be impacted. Birds use wind currents for the migration. If the changes in sea ice cause air currents to change, accuracy of bird migration could be reduced.

Food Web Base

When ice melts earlier, the blooms of phytoplankton appear earlier. The sun isn't as strong in the spring then, so phytoplankton blooms may not be as abundant to nourish the benthic organisms including clams, shrimp, and crabs. As a result, less food may be present for marine mammals. Traditional peoples on costal Alaska subsisting on sea mammals may be adversely affected by a reduction of sea mammal populations.

Social Aspects

The people are known as Inupiat, Eskimo and have, in oral and contemporary history, lived on the sea mammals. Traditionally natives locate their communities by the sea to locate and access their foods. According to Shishmaref Alaska Erosion and Relocation Coalition, each family stores 50 gallons of seal oil a year. In the past some of that oil was used for heating, now it is particularly a substance for subsistence. Due to erosion, to a great extent enhanced by water warming, the melting of ice, the island's topography is forcing local peoples to flee. Vast amounts of soil is discharged to rivers, causing riverbeds to be elevated. River depths are shallow so that more and salmon have lesions, cuts, and scrapes on salmon. If salmon numbers go down, this will have a effect on bears, land otters, and eagles. These peoples who have traditionally lived off sea and river harvest for centuries could be our best human indicators of global warming.


Many coastal communities are facing increasing problems with storms due to sea ice melting. Increasingly rising temperatures are altering the Arctic coastline. Less sea ice makes means open water, letting stronger wave generation by winds increase wave-induced erosion along Arctic shores. One of the most dominant natural feature of the Arctic topography is permafrost. This natural condition makes it difficult to grow foliage and as a consequence, erosion is predictable once human activity causes damage to the surface vegetation. This is assisted by seasonal warming and thawing of the upper soil layer in the summer. The pounding of elevated sea water and storm winds associated with global warming contribute to the increased thawing of permafrost.

Sea level rise and the melting of the coastal permafrost enhance this problem. In some cases an eroding shoreline mixes coarse sediments with frozen seawater, making large blocks of ice. The ice carries sediments long distances. Sediment ice blocks are hazardous to ships and continue to erode the coastline as they are carried along by the winds. Higher waves will make this even more prevalent.

A rising sea level will force salt water into bays, rivers, and groundwater. Many of these are a source of the coastal inhabitants' water sources. Higher sea level at the mouths of rivers and bays will allow salt water more inland. Storms that bring a lot of rainfall at the coast will increase erosion by runoff and the amount of mobile sediment in coastal waters. Coastal regions with underlying permafrost are especially vulnerable to erosion.


Some towns and industrial facilities are already feeling the effects of such erosion and some are facing relocation as warming begins to affect the coastlines. The village of Shishmaref is now facing the problem on whether or not to evacuate. The oceans rising surface level and temperatures are causing a decrease in sea ice and the thawing of permafrost along the coast. Temperature gets warmer and so does the ground. Permafrost makes doors and windows fail to function properly as the structure is damaged. Reduced sea ice makes the coast vulnerable to storm surges, and the decrease in permafrost makes them vulnerable to erosion. This undermines village's homes, water system, and other buildings. A dozen houses have had to be moved further away from the sea. The absence of sea ice also stops the villagers from traveling to the mainland to hunt moose and caribou. Now the inlet is open water in the autumn, freeze up is later, currents have changed and ice conditions have been altered. The erosion and the sea ice retreat leaves the community potentially more vulnerable to increasingly severe and frequent storms. Threatened is the capability to evacuate by plane if the airport is flooded. Less sea ice will most likely increase marine transport by shipand access to resources. Because of a decrease in sea ice there will be improved ship accessibility around the region of the Arctic Basin. Studies suggest that sea ice in summer will go away from most Arctic landmasses, creating an opening for new shipping routes and making the ice-free period longer increasing shipping. As sea ice declines new laws may need to be made or revised regarding marine safety and animal protection. Also there will be an increase in competition for the use of Arctic waterways and coastal seas. The groups that would be competing are shipping industries, hunters of marine wildlife, sealers, tourism companies, and commercial fishers. Competing marine uses in newly open or partially ice-covered areas will call for increased enforcement and oversight.

Because of the increased access to shipping routes and there will be a risk of environmental degradation caused by these activities. One major concern is oil spills and other industrial accidents. A studies suggests that the effects of oil spills in a high-latitude, cold ocean environment last much longer and are far worse than ones in open water. Arctic spills need to be prevented. New regulations for ships, offshore structures, port facilities, and other coastal activities must be created to insure the reduction in spills. But spills are expected and cleaning them will be much harder and complex.

Sea ice melting will cause coastal communities to have major economic and cultural problems. Indigenous peoples have shaped their whole lives around survival in the Arctic and its environment. The people of the Arctic are seeing many changes such as unstable weather, changing snow quality, and characteristics. Storm surges are causing increased erosion in coastal areas. Sunburn and strange skin rashes, never experienced before, are becoming common. Because of the melting of the sea ice there will be an increase in ultraviolet radiation. There are many concerns on such a threat. One of the concerns is eye damage. Climate change is occurring faster than people can adapt. Climate change is strongly affecting people in many communities, in some cases, threatening their cultural survival. Indigenous eople of the Arctic feel a strong connection to the land and its environment; it has shaped their culture and way of life. A decrease in sea ice makes its difficult for the people of the Arctic to hunt which is the basis for their subsistence lifestyle.

Climate change will have an effect on other aspects of health of the people in the arctic. Rural arctic villagers in tiny, isolated town's with a fragile system of support, little infrastructure, and small or non-existent public health systems will be the most vulnerable. Residents who depend upon a subsistence lifestyle will be affected because the species they hunt in order to eat will be affected by the sea ice. There are pros and cons of sea ice melting on the health of the people. A positive factor, of global warming, would be a reduction in cold induced injuries like frostbite, hypothermia and cold stress. Winter death rates would also be more likely to go down. A con would be increased heat stress and accidents tied in with unusual ice and weather conditions. Indirect impacts include effects on diet due to changes in the access to and availability of subsistence foods, increased mental and social stresses related to changes in the environment and lifestyle.

There are new discoveries that ice is thinning on the Arctic Ocean and that it can't absorb as much sunlight as it was able to. The ice has a big influence on climate and weather patterns. If more ice melts it can dramatically change the climate, currents, and weather patterns. There are geological studies that show that is a big influence on the erosion and the ice melting. It shows that the ice melting will also affect the natural resources in the Arctic Ocean, the coastline, sedimentation patterns are being alternated, and there is a major permafrost loss.

Some natural resources that are in the Arctic Ocean are: oil, petroleum, natural gases, poly-metallic nodules, sand, and gravel aggregates. Also present are the resources of silver, gold, natural gas, petroleum, nickel, zinc, lead, mercury, platinum, and copper. They exist in almost every region in Alaska but the ones on the shore are in potential danger from the erosion and sea level rising. The rising of the water can directly be a threat to oil and gas facilities.

The temperatures are rising and changing the Arctic coast. Villagers are going to be faced with larger problems from all the ice loss in the future. The thawing of permafrost is going to cause a sea-level rise. The open water will make it weaker to stronger winds, creating more, bigger waves which will cause erosion on the arctic shores. As the ice beneath the shoreline thaws from warmer air and water causing more erosion. The increase of the sea level will be more potential to storms, the bigger waves, will cause further erosion. The consequence of the permafrost loss will bring more sedimentation which will affect the ecosystem. Increase permafrost lost could increase the carbon dioxide and methane levels. The erosion of the Arctic shoreline could cause some problems for ports, tanker terminals, and other industrial facilities as well as coastal communities. Rising waters are likely to ruin marshes and coastal plains, accelerate beach erosion, exacerbate coastal flooding, and force saltwater into freshwater. A higher sea level will allow saltwater to push the bay mouths further inland. When sedimentation is eroded or mixed with permafrost it can ruin many of the forests that grow on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The thermohaline circulation is like a conveyor belt; the ocean currents move in certain ways, in a rotation. The sun hits the equator in such a way that it has the possibility of slowing down the thermohaline. The mixture of heat and salt in the ocean is a factor that affects the ocean currents, and with the added heat causing the glaciers to melt and collapse, more fresh water is being added into the water, thus, causing the currents to slow down.

As the water travels northward on this conveyor belt, it becomes increasingly salty and dense, as salt doesn't partake in the freezing of water. The thermohaline moves the warmer water to the north. With the climate changes that we are having, it could warm up the cold currents that bring warm water north, which would cause even more climate changes. As previously mentioned, doing this would slow the conveyor belt and would have many global effects, such as the lack of cold, dense water sinking to the depths of the ocean, which would, in itself, result in nutrients needed for marine animals living near the surface of the ocean not getting said nutrients. The nutrients would stay at the bottom and the aforementioned marine animals would die out. These climate changes would also affect the transport of CO2 in the ocean. These effects would cause the CO2 to be unleashed into the air, causing the earth to heat up all the more. Another thing that would change would be regional cooling; places in the north would remain cool when the rest of the world would be heating up at a rapid rate.

Heat from the tropics also helps out the ocean in maintaining the air's heat. Now, if more fresh water was to be added into the sea, via runoff, precipitation, or temperatures not cold enough to form ice, the deep water formation would be lesser than normal. Temperatures would be unusual, and European winters would be left unmoderated.


The melting of the Arctic sea ice will affect the ocean's chemistry. Arctic sea ice reflects the suns ray. However the ocean water does not. Instead it absorbs the raise increasing the water temperature. Also the melting of the arctic ice will increase the oceans salinity. Because the ice has gone through precipitation it has more salt than water. The melting of this ice will release mass amounts of salts into the ocean. In addition, the permafrost in the Arctic stores vast amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. The release of this carbon dioxide would have detrimental affects on the atmosphere and the ocean. The carbon dioxide release into the oceans water would form carbonic acid. This would make the oceans more acidic. An increase in acidity would have a huge negative affect on the oceans marine life. In fact this might cause a mass extinction of marine life.


According to Ocean Surface Topography from Space, TOPEX is a NASA device, every ten days a satellite flies overhead and two independently derived pieces of information are compared. The information measures the rise of the ocean levels through survey techniques and locally used ocean gauges. There is ongoing comparison between the information of the Topex/Poseidon and the CNES DORIS. The accuracy of the of the satellite orbital height and the tracking information with models of the forces such as gravity and aerodynamic drag can be known with a precision of 2-3 centimeters. This is one of the ways that these two devices, measure the rise of the ocean surface level. The other way of measuring the ocean height is the distance between the ranges from the TOPEX Poseidon to the ocean surface. Altimeters are on board which bounce microwave pulses off the ocean surface. Technology also can measure the changes in ice pack mass. This information can be used to estimate the melting of sea ice and the subsequent increase in sea level. Additionally, Global Positioning Systems can be used to track loss of Shishmaref village coastline and be used to aid in planning of the ultimate relocation of the village.


Global warming is bringing many changes to the Shishmaref village. The heat-induced changes risk loss of traditional hunting, fishing, and cultural considerations. Modified will be the biological and ecological aspects as well as geological, chemical, and physical factors. The beach erosion threatens the buildings, infrastructure, the people, and their way of life. Taking whatever action is humanly possible seems prudent to prevent these things from taking place.