Global Warming Imperils Alaska Village

As the Earth's temperatures rise, the protective sea ice that protects an Eskimo village from erosion is melting fast. Jerry Bowen reports on global warming's effect in Alaska.

CBS News correspondent Jerry Bowen reports Alaska, America's spectacular last frontier, is now Earth's hot spot.

Just ask Deborah Williams, of Alaska Conservation Solutions. "I used to bring people to this spot to see the glacier; now I bring people here to not see the glacier," she says. "Nine percent of the rise of sea levels in the world is because of melting Alaska glaciers."

No place says "baked Alaska" like the Eskimo village of Shishmaref, a barrier island town of 600 residents on the state's west coast.

Shishmaref's natives, called Inupiat, still survive on the salmon and seal they catch, along with the ivory and bone carvings they sell to outsiders.

The town has been the winter home of the Inupiat for 4,000 years, and became their permanent home only after they adopted Western ways with permanent housing. But there's nothing permanent about the village now, with the sea swallowing up one home after another.

It's because the protective sea ice that used to buffer the village against storms isn't as massive or long-lasting now — the weather's been too warm for too long. That makes the shoreline vulnerable to erosion at an average of 10 feet a year.

Resident Lorraine Jungers says people want to move, "but we don't want to move to another city. Because we lose our identity."

What the villagers want is to move Shishmaref as a whole: power plant, new school and every house on the island. The cost of doing so? An estimated $180 million.

If Shishmaref gets its $180 million, it will move 10 miles across a lagoon and two more miles to higher ground inland. But the problem won't be over. Scientists say there are 180 more villages that need to be moved or they'll be lost as well.

The price will run into the billions, just for Alaska's villages. And what's it going to cost to save Miami, and America's other coastal metropolitan areas, if global warming forecasters are right and seas rise 3 to 20 feet by century's end?

Says Alaska Conservation Solutions's Williams, "Shishmaref demonstrates that the cost of not dealing with global warming can be greater than the cost of dealing with global warming."

The village has received $5 million to start the move, but Shishmaref's leaders doubt they'll get the full $180 million. Legislation has stalled, and the clock is running out: in 15 years it's estimated this island will be lost to the sea.