Thursday, December 02, 2010

Pizzly bears vs. grolar bears. Oh my!

There's only room for one of us bears in this town--One of nature’s great environmental battles, between two of the fiercest predators on the planet, may be playing out in the arctic, and one of those predators, the polar bear, could be the loser. As sea ice melts, the bears, which rely on the ice for hunting habitats, are moving south. As the climate warms, the grizzly is moving north. They are inevitably going to meet and will compete for survival. According to researchers at UCLA, the polar bears are likely to lose. Or, maybe not.

The UCLA researchers took an unusual approach. They constructed three-dimensional computer models of the skulls of polar bears and grizzlies, and simulated the process of biting. They wanted to see how hard the two species bite and how thick are their skulls. According to Graham Slater, a post-doc in ecology and evolutionary biology and the lead researcher at UCLA in the article published in PLoS ONE, a publication of the Public Library of Science, the two species can bite equally hard, but the polar bear’s skull “is a much weaker structure.”

This is crucial, he says, because that makes the polar bear less adaptable to the more plant-rich diet they will find as they move away from the sea.

"Chewing a lot of vegetables takes quite a lot of force to grind up," Slater said. "Grizzly bears are well suited to eating these kinds of food, but the polar bear is not well suited for it. The grizzly has a much more efficient skull for eating these kinds of foods,” he said. He did not add that in any fight, the grizzly would have an advantage if it goes for the head. But is that scenario real? Few dispute that polar bears are in trouble. Of the 19 populations of polar bears, only one is growing. Five are in decline, three appear stable and there is insufficient data on seven, most of the latter in Russia. Not only are the bears having trouble hunting—their main dish is seal—but some are drowning as they try to move from one piece of ice to another. They are strong swimmers but distances are growing and more bears are being seen in the high seas, threatened by wind and waves, parts of the ocean they would normally avoid. Fewer bears survive each year and there is fear some colonies—or all of them—will become extinct.

There has been a move to put them on the endangered species list. Skeptics point out—correctly—that there is not an overwhelming amount of data upon which to draw conclusions. Scientists in the north, and the people who live with the bears have a somewhat different view of the animals than do people in say Washington or Los Angeles.

Grizzlies now have been spotted in Manitoba, where they have not been seen in years. Grizzlies have even been seen on the ice in the far north of Canada. The two species are meeting and there have been at least two reports of a hybrid bear (one parent a polar, the other a grizzly), and in one case, a second generation hybrid, meaning they can reproduce. That is a nightmare animal if ever there is one. (Will we call them “pizzly bears” or “grolar bears?” )  In fact, polar bears descended from brown bears, around 150,000 years ago. That date is important because about 44,000 years ago there was a warm period and the polar bears apparently adapted and survived.

People who are suspicious of the extinction warnings think that is a good reason to calm down about the fate of the beautiful animals. Can the bears adapt again? We will see, won't we.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Einstein, Relativity and the Wingnuts

"The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits." Albert Einstein -First it was evolution, then global climate change. Now it’s the Theory of Relativity and it’s iconic formula, E=mc2.

Conservative bloggers are attacking Einstein’s theories as a “liberal conspiracy,”claiming they are controversial outside of “liberal universities.” Puzzled physicists, who consider relativity to be a seminal discovery of their science, seem as unsure how to react as did biologists when first confronted with modern creationists.

While relativity has always had rejectionists--mostly anti-Semites—the new dispute draws the denial into the realm of American politics, where it doesn’t belong.

The debate became public when a conservative website, Conservapedia, posted a definition of relativity making the charge it was part of an ideological plot, and then added a list of counter examples it claims disprove the theories. The postings were picked up by the liberal blog TPMuckraker and went, in the jargon of the internet, “viral.”

Conservapedia was created by Andrew Schlafly, the 49-year-old lawyer son of Phyllis Schlafly, the antiabortion activist. He studied engineering physics from Princeton and law at Harvard, and founded Conservapedia three years ago because he felt Wikipedia, the dominant online encyclopedia and one of the most visited websites in the world, had a liberal, anti-Christian, anti-American bias. Among other things, it accepts evolution as a fact and will occasionally use British spelling.

(Schlafly did not respond to repeated attempts to interview him for this article).

Einstein, a notorious liberal, would be amused but hardly surprised.

Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton defined modern physics in 1666, with his laws of motion and energy and his description of how the planets circle the sun. His universe was beautiful, rational, deterministic. His laws still dominate how we think about the mechanics of the world. In 1905, the 26-year-old Einstein, working as a patent clerk (even brilliant physicists need a day job) in Bern, had a very good year. He published four papers, any one of which would have made him famous, but the first cinched it: the Special Theory of Relativity. The famous formula is in that paper: energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Energy, the mass of an object, and the speed of light, all seemingly disparate attributes are entwined. The mass of any object can be converted into energy, as the world subsequently found out to its horror.

Ten years later, he added gravity to space and time in the General Theory of Relativity. Every time you feel heavier when an elevator you are riding in accelerates upward or lighter going down, you are feeling effects described in the General Theory.

The theories were radical for their time. They did not contradict Newton as much as they complemented Newton. Einstein had pulled off a rare thing in science, what the historian-physicist Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift. There aren’t many in the history of science, and as Kuhn wrote, one sure initial reaction was disbelief, which is certainly how Einstein’s papers were first greeted.

In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington, observing the stars around the sun during a solar eclipse. The light from the stars was deflected as it passed by the sun just as Einstein predicted. It made Einstein world famous.

(Asked what would he think if Eddington came up with a different answer, Einstein replied, “Then I would feel sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct anyway.”)

For most of the 20th century, scientists fanned out around the world to test the predictions inferred from relativity. Many--perhaps most--hoped they would be the ones to disprove Einstein. Unlike evolution, which takes millions of years to well, evolve, relativity can be proven in laboratories within minutes, and has. Einstein’s theories have been verified going back now nearly 100 years.

“There is no controversy,” says historian and physicist Michael Riordan, adjunct professor of physics at the University of California Santa Cruz. “The theory isn’t wrong, it’s incomplete and has refinements that might or might not be true.”

Andrew Schlafly
A second paradigm shift overtook Einstein, the theories of quantum mechanics, a concept Einstein never accepted. Quantum mechanics, created by a slew of physicists led by the Dane Niels Bohr, did to Einstein what Einstein did to Newton--complemented his theories. Like relativity, quantum mechanics also has passed every test.

No serious physicist doubts relativity or quantum mechanics any more than any serious biologist doubts evolution.

Which brings us to Andrew Schlafly.

Schlafly is obvious very bright. He was accepted at both Princeton and Harvard Law. He is obviously very well educated. He graduated both after a distinguished academic career.

That creates a puzzle: how could someone as bright and as well-educated produce web entries so perfectly inane.

Schlafly’s main argument appears to confuse relativity, an abstraction in physics, with relativism, a philosophical argument having nothing to do with physics.  He believes that accepting relativity leads to moral and religious relativism, which is like saying growing apples leads to giraffes.

What seems to have triggered it was a 1989 Harvard Law Review article, now all over the internet, written by liberal law professor Lawrence Tribe, using relativity as a metaphor for understanding constitutional law. Tribe thanked Barack Obama in the footnotes (which isn’t surprising since Obama was then editor of the Review), hence it must be a liberal conspiracy.

Some of the statements in his relativity entries (I haven’t bothered to look at other pages) makes me wonder if he is underestimating his readership or whether he is pandering to them, knowing what he is writing is nonsense but they’ll never figure that out because he is feeding their prejudices.

For instance, Schlafly claims that “virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible,” but doesn’t say how he knows that. Has he polled them all? Are there any data to support that?” No one as educated as Schlafly can write that with a straight face. I was taught relativity and read the Bible every Saturday morning. A world famous astrophysicist in our synagogue also believes in relativity and reads the Bible. I can match Schlafly’s anecdotes with mine, and none of them prove anything. As a trained engineer from Princeton, he knows better.

He also uses examples from the Christian Bible as evidence the theories are wrong, which of course is religion, not science.

Perhaps there is something else going on.

After the physics community learned to accept Einstein’s theories, attacks continued from less reputable sources, anti-Semites, apparently upset that a Jew was credited with producing something that important. They called it “Jewish science.” Nazis proposed that Germans should do better and came up with an alternative construct, totally incoherent, called Deutsche Physik. German science didn’t recover until after World War 2.

While there is no overt anti-Semitism in the Conservapedia, the entries on relativity echo the old arguments. For instance, Schlafly writes: “The theory... is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.”

Forget for a moment that he is assuming everyone who believes in relativity is a liberal. Greg Gbur, assistant professor of physics at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte points out in his blog Skulls in the Stars that if you “replace ‘liberals’ with ‘Jews’ in [that] sentence, the words might well have been written by a Nazi circa 1930s-era Germany.”

The attacks on Einstein, overtly anti-Semitic or otherwise, take two forms, and Schlafly repeats them both: that Einstein plagiarized the theory and that the theory is is known to be wrong.

All scientists base their work on that of their predecessors, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” as Newton put it. Deniers point to the work of Jules Henri Poincaré, and Hendrik Lorentz which preceded Einstein’s publication by several years. These men were superb physicists (Lorentz won a Nobel Prize) and had thought about relativity, but neither made the huge leap in imagination Einstein did, although Poincaré came close and probably did influence him.

Another claim is that the theories originated with Einstein’s first wife, the Serbian physics student, Mileva Marik. She may well have served as a sounding board, but there exists no serious evidence she made any substantive contribution. Einstein biographer Ronald Clarke wrote that Einstein didn’t think her bright enough to understand what he was working on. She was an Einstein in name only.

No scientist has had his life probed by more respected biographers and historians than Einstein, and none of them have discovered any proof that the credit for relativity is misplaced.

To prove that the theories wrong, Schlafly provides a list of about two dozen “counterexamples.” The list changes regularly so you can’t come up with a solid numberr. Some are irrelevant, confusing relativity with quantum physics; some misinterpret the science, and many are demonstrably completely wrong.

Schlafly claims that “The lack of useful devices developed based on any insights provided by the theory; no lives have been saved or helped, and the theory has not led to other useful theories and may have interfered with scientific progress.”

The sound you hear is jaws dropping.

First of all, just because nothing useful came out of the discovery of a law of nature doesn’t make the discovery wrong. Everything does not have to have a practical application. But his premise is erroneous.

Everyone who has had a PET scan in a hospital, many who have undergone radiation therapy for cancer or turned on a particle accelerator has used Special Relativity, says Riordan. If you have a GPS navigation system in your car, Einstein is guiding you. If your electricity comes from a nuclear power station, Einstein is lighting your home. That E=mc2 is wrong surely would have surprised the physicists at the Manhattan Project who used it to destroy two cities, not to mention the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki..

The GPS issue is interesting. Schlafly says a Navy research office denied the GPS satellites made use of relativity and that there is nothing about the satellites relevant to Einstein. The navy office he quotes said no such thing and scientists who programmed the satellites had to program relativity into the four clocks in each satellite or the satellites would be useless. Every physicist knows this, and I know at least one of the physicists who actually did the programming. Can Schlafly, with his Princeton engineering really degree not?
GPS satellite

Perhaps the most bizarre of Schlafly’s counterarguments involves what Einstein called “spooky action from a distance” which Schlafly uses to disprove relativity. He uses Jesus to back him up.

Start with the premise (I do) that quantum physics makes no sense at all. Einstein would agree with that sentiment. One of the foundations of relativity is that there is a cosmic speed limit--nothing can move faster than the speed of light.

In a thought experiment with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published in 1935, he postulated that if you took a molecule containing two atoms, you could describe the two atoms with one formula. They shared twin attributes, a wave function. If you then separated the two atoms, they would still share the same wave function so that if you altered one, the other would reflect the change instantaneously even if it was now across the galaxy.

Nothing, Einstein wrote in his relativity papers, could go faster than the speed of light, so of course this is impossible. This isn’t as funny as Schrödinger’s Cat, but nonetheless proved, so Einstein believed, that quantum mechanics was nothing but solipsism.

But quantum physicists can prove that actually happens, something they call “entanglement.” Forty years after Einstein died, the French physicist Alain Aspect used a pair of entangled photons he created with lasers and proved that a change in one instantaneously changed other, speed of light be damned.

Other experiments have verified Aspect’s work. No one has the remotest idea how that works. As is usual, however, Shlafly uses that as evidence relativity is wrong. Einstein, who thought relativity was right, used it to show quantum mechanics was wrong. In fact, it proves neither. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t make it wrong; it just makes it mysterious. And quantum mechanics doesn’t contradict relativity, it adds to it. We are just not sure how.

Which brings us to Jesus.

Shlafly quotes John 4:46-54, where Jesus, fresh from turning wine into water, cures a child in a remote geographic location. Schlafly never explains in detail (one gets the feeling he just wanted a Biblical reference to please his audience) but the book says it happened instantly, which would defy Einstein. But we doesn’t know how fast the cure happened since the kid was elsewhere and more important, if Jesus is who Schlafly thinks he is, why can’t he perform miracles? Miracles are acts that defy the law of nature.

And what the hell does that have to do with science?

Here’s where Schlafly’s rhetorical technique comes to play.

Gbur says that Schlafly uses a technique known in rhetoric as the “Gish Gallup” (named for a creationist debater who employed it), which can be defined as throw as much crap out there as possible and give the appearance you know what you are talking about and take the chance no one has the energy to dig through it all. Schlafly piles statement after statement, footnote after footnote. and even stacks impressive mathematical formulas with jargon. Some of the references refer to himself and some have nothing to do with the argument, and few deal with outside sources.

Physicists have mixed feelings about how to react. Several refused to comment for this story because they did not want to give Schlafly credibility. But Clifford Will, professor of physics at Washington University, in an email from Paris, wrote:

“The internet world is full of kooks and crackpots who put out all kinds of drivel.  It is pointless to attempt to refute these people with evidence, because they don't believe in evidence.

“…People may not like relativity, but the experimental and observational evidence that supports it is so overwhelming that it is a now fact of the universe,” he wrote.

Einstein himself, who got the first word above, gets the last word:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ice melts, Greenland pops up

I wonder if you can hear it groan—Ice is heavy and one of the results of massive glaciers is that the sheer weight of the ice suppresses the land. Melt the ice and the land springs up. That is happening so fast in Greenland, Iceland and northern Norway that scientists from the University of Miami say they can actually see the land rise.

Every one knows it was happening. You can see it in some of the valleys of Alaska. Measuring the rise, however, is hard to do,. Seasonal changes, for instance, screw up the numbers. Additionally, whole sections of North America are still rebounding from the last ice age. The Miami researchers are using high precision satellite imaging from the GPS satellites, to measure the changes in the height of the landmass under northern glaciers. What makes the study, published in Nature Geoscience, unique is that they are measuring the rate of change. That rate has increased dramatically in the last 10 years, almost instantaneously in the way geologists measure time.

It’s true all over the North Atlantic region, wrote Yan Jiang and the team. In some cases the land is going up nearly an inch a year and by 2025 it could be twice as fast. Timothy Dixon, co-author, said: “What's surprising, and a bit worrisome, is that the ice is melting so fast that we can actually see the land uplift in response."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Abusing the placebo effect

Take two pills and drink plenty of liquids, or you can use the pills to sweeten your coffee. Homeopathy has been around since 1796, the result of a false syllogism by one Samuel Hannemann, and it is very big in my neighborhood. A local private school’s house physician is a homeopath. Fortunately, the year my daughter went to that school she did not get sick so I didn’t have to explain to anyone why he was getting nowhere near her.

Homeopahty is the notion that symptoms of a disease can be cured by administering extremely small amounts of a substance that will produce the same symptoms in a healthy person, the “law of similars.” Two centuries of scientific study have failed to show the slightest evidence it actually works.

The fine British science writer David Bradley found an interesting letter in a rather obscure British medical journal, Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, suggesting that homeopath even fails as a placebo instigator.

What’s wrong with giving a patient a placebo? The letter, written by Edzard Ernst at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, argues there are two kinds of professionals who prescribe homeopathic remedies. One, the people who actually believe it works. They give it to patients and patients get better. They get better, of course because in most cases, when you are sick your body just gets better if you leave it alone, and because of the placebo effect. Ernst argues those practitioners are simply unethical.

The other kind prescribes homeopathic remedies because of the placebo effect. What does it matter how the patient gets well as long as the patient gets well. I'll give you this pill, you think it will make you better, and often it will. The logic, Ernst writes, is “ethically flawed.”

It would, almost by definition, involve deceiving patients. If we tell our patients that a homeopathic remedy is devoid of specific therapeutic effects, we cannot expect them to respond with clinical improvement. To generate a positive response, we must maximise expectations — and this can only be achieved by using deception. Not telling the truth undermines trust and is unethical. What follows is simple: the prescription of homeopathic medicines is in conflict with fundamental principles of medical ethics.

More important, of course, is that the patient might use the homeopathic remedy instead of getting scientifically based treatment, something I see around here. In the case of a life-threatening disorder, that is serious stuff. For instance, the UK organization of homeopaths has been advertising they have been successfully treating flu for two centuries. They have not.

The main argument against homeopathic remedies as useful placebos is that a physician can make use of the placebo effect without actually administering a placebo. Just tell the patient this antibiotic is an absolute wonder drug, it always works,  and you have given the patient real medicine and added the benefit of a placebo. Giving homeopathic compounds may produce the placebo effect but does absolutely nothing else--except provide income for the practitioner.

By the way, Bradley has calculated that the effects of a homeopathic compound actually working--he uses a compound with less than one molecule of sulfur--is 600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1 against.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Tides of Newtok

The post office at Newtok, AK. Mail comes by air several times a week. Zip code 99559.

If it costs $100 million to move 400 Eskimos, what will it cost to move Miami?--Joseph Patrick, 64, believes in retrospect, the villagers knew something was wrong back in the 1950s right after the Yup'ik moved into the new site, but it wasn’t until twenty years later they realized their world was turning upside down. Patrick is one of the Newtok elders, and if you travel to the village, the community insists you speak to them for they hold the wisdom of the place. They remember back in the day, before Newtok was doomed.

Until the 1950s, this community was located on higher ground, a place called Old Kealavic, about ten miles from the current location, where they lived in sod dwellings, half buried in the tundra. The students in the Old Kealavic community traveled to Bethel, St. Mary’s, Sitka or Anchorage for education, but in 1958, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided that all Alaskan natives needed schools. Most of Alaska’s Eskimos and Indians found themselves settled into villages, usually beyond the state’s road system, villages built around their schools. These Yup’ik were moved from Old Kealavic to a new site. They called the new settlement Newtok. [The word Eskimo is not a pejorative in Alaska as it is in Canada and Greenland, where Inuit is preferred.]

The two men sat in a lounge in a newest Newtok school while the school’s young principle, Grant Kashatok, translated from the Yup’ik. The river then was frozen farther out, they said, and the mouth of the river, where it spilled into the sea, was colder then. Gradually it became shallower, the water became warmer and eventually the shoreline began moving further out. That means they soon found they had to travel farther to fish and hunt. Every year, it seemed, it got worse.

“We don’t have an ocean to go down to when we go hunting now,” Michael John, 71, said.
While the sea was retreating, the river was coming closer, and the permafrost beneath the town (permafrost that underlies most of Alaska) was melting right under them. They decided a decade ago, it was time to look for a place to move the settlement again.

A group of elders explored the area around the village to see if they could find a place. They preferred “old sites,” places where the Yup'ik had lived before to see if they could return, but the old sites were sinking too.

The elders had no trouble finding the sites. Because of erosion, the old bodies in the cemeteries were exposed on the surface.

Access to most of the villages of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta in western Alaska is through Bethel, a frontier town of 7,000 on the Kuskokwim River. It is a bustling if cluttered port town, the economic base for the huge delta region. The area’s hospital is here, so is the administrative center for the native corporations. Hunters and fishers use it as a base--the delta is rich in wildlife, although part of it is a wildlife preserve. Mostly Bethel is a victim of its location.

Bethel has six miles of paved road that connect to nothing. The cars have no place to go once they get to Bethel by air or barge and never get to exceed fifty miles an hour.1 Like all Alaskan communities, including parts of Anchorage and Fairbanks, the custom of dumping your junk on the lawns or in the driveways prevails. I was told the reason Alaskans rarely throw anything out is that it is so expensive to bring in and because you never know when you need a spare part. Also, there is no real place to put it. Central dumps are not universally supported, in part because the ground is usually frozen. The result is an Arctic Appalachian culture, with old cars, couches, refrigerators, snowmobiles, animal skins and bones everywhere, particularly in front or back yards.

While Bethel is served by Alaska Airlines 737s from Anchorage, flights to the villages are organized by two competing bush airlines using single-engine planes. Airport security at Bethel is a throwback to the pre-9/11 days and even ticketing is informal. The pilot meets you at the doorway, collects your ticket, escorts you to the plane, helps load the baggage (you have to tell him your weight) and helps you into the aircraft. No one gets searched.

One day in May, one of my students, Amy Chaussé, and I flew across the tundra through snow squalls at between 400 and 700 feet, a thrilling, smooth and beautiful ride in a Cessna 208. Like most bush planes, the Cessna had half its sixteen seats removed for freight, the planes being the only way of getting mail and goods to the villages until the river ice melts, which doesn’t happen until late May, early June. I got to sit in the copilot’s seat. While some of the thousands of lakes and ponds were still frozen, the tundra grass was visible everywhere with only a hem of snow in pockets and in the shallow ridges. Now and again, the ground would be obscured by another squall, but the air stayed smooth. Occasionally an airstrip and a few houses would appear, another village, and ninety-four miles from Bethel, the village of Newtok. Flying in Alaska is statistically the most dangerous aviation in the world, but this flight was a joy.

Newtok sits on the north bank of the Ninglick River, one of the countless tributaries of the mighty Yukon, one of the world’s great rivers, which runs 2,000 miles from western Canada, up through interior Alaska, past the Arctic Circle and down toward the Bering Sea, eventually spreading like a coral fan across the vast tundra. There is no one mouth to the Yukon, but hundreds of outlets through the arteries and veins of the delta and the Ninglick is one. A second tributary, the Kealavik (also called the Newtok) once ran on the east side of the town, but years ago, it cut a new path, a shortcut to the Ninglick, bypassing the village.

The weather at Newtok is not awful by interior Alaskan standards, with maximum highs in the summer at fifty-six to sixty degrees Fahrenheit, and lows in the winter at eighteen to nineteen above zero. It has gotten as warm as eighty and as cold as negative thirty-five, but those are the extremes. Newtok gets better than two feet of snow every year. Freeze-up begins in early November on the rivers, late November on the Bering Sea, fifteen miles away. The ice on the river can be six to eight feet thick. Breakup is in May. The permafrost is not uniform, which accounts for the little puddles and ponds in the tundra, but at its thickest, it can go 600 feet down.

In Yup’ik tradition, houses should be round, but in Newtok the only thing round is the light blue tank holding the diesel fuel for the generators. The shacks sit on stilts to keep them off the permafrost. Electric cables run everywhere. Wooden planks serve as walkways. There being no vehicles except snow machines and ATVs, there is no need for streets.

The people of Newtok are members of the Central Alaskan Yup’ik group who populate the central coast of Western Alaska, across the sea from their cousins in Siberia. The Yup’ik have been there for about 2,000 years, and the Newtok Yup’ik share a heritage with Yup'ik on Nelson Island across the river. Collectively, they are known as Qaluyaarmiut, the dip net people, for the way they fish. Eskimos are generally collected as language groups, not tribes, and the Yup’ik are the largest, about 20,000 souls. Their first contact with Europeans was in the 1840s, when a Russian explorer, Lt. Lavrenty Zagoskin, of the Russian America Company, came through while surveying the delta. An occasional missionary visited and converted a few Yup’iks from their animist religion since, but they were something of a moving target, nomadic most of the year. The Eskimos spent spring and summer at hunting camps following the caribou and marine mammals, and then collected in settlements to pass the winter. As late as the 1960s, they would pack their belongings on dogsleds and gather at the banks of the Ninglick. They survived then--and to less extent now--harvesting fish and mammals from the sea, particularly seals and walruses. Like most natives, they gave up dogsleds decades ago in favor of gas-driven ATVs and snow machines.

Most Yup’ik in the community that became Newtok were almost completely isolated from the rest of the world until the 1920s, in part because the nearest road is eighty miles away. Then Alaska formed the Territorial Guard (now the Alaska National Guard) and men from the community began to see more of the outside world and the isolation ended.

The exact population depends on who you ask. Officially the census says are 353 people in Newtok, but the locals say there are about a hundred more. In the spring of 2008, the number was listed by authorities at 467. According to the 2000 census, there were eighty-seven housing units with four buildings empty. There are fewer buildings now. Except for young school teachers brought in from outside, the population is entirely Yup'ik. More than half the population was not in the workforce at the time of the census, and the median household income was $32,188. Things have not changed much since. There is a health clinic--sometimes staffed by a nurse--but for anything serious people are flown to Bethel or Anchorage. Drinking water comes from a nearby lake and goes into a water treatment plant. In the winter, melted ice provides the water. There is no sewage system; Newtok is a “honey bucket” community.

At least 180 Eskimo villages now are threatened by climate change and six of them--Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, Unalakleet, Koyukuk, Kivalina and Newtok--have only a few more years to live. In some cases, the Army Corps of Engineers has recommended Dutch-style sea walls to keep the villages from being washed away. In the case of three towns, Newtok, Kivalina and Shishmaref, the only salvation is to pick them up and move them. That is stunningly expensive and the political will to produce the money is not there. No one believes they will be the only towns that will confront this conundrum. Things are going to get much worse.

Alaska as more than 30,000 miles of coastline, and 80 percent of its population lives on the coast. The sea is rising, the storms are howling. Shishmaref and Kivalina, are getting blown away. Last year the 300 residents of Kivalina had to be evacuated because of an impending storm. Authorities were afraid the wind would knock over the diesel fuel tank and spread toxic liquid over the settlement. Newtok is victimized by both erosion and melting permafrost and living there has become untenable.

The troubles of Newtok can be seen on the wooden planking, which was fairly flat and straight when it was laid down but now dips and weaves between the buildings. By May, the predominant feature of the village is mud as the top level of soil, only inches thin above the permafrost and frozen through the winter, melts. One result of mud, the poverty and the culture, is filth. The sole exception is the new school, built in modular form ten years ago, the center of Newtok’s universe. It could be plopped in any upper-class suburban American community and be appreciated. Thanks to oil and gas royalties, many of the newer schools in Alaska are physically exceptional, often beautiful and usually well-equipped. Newtok's school is no exception, a haven in the mire. It also is jammed. In a town of around 400, there are 120 children in the school, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, all sharing the same facilities.

The school library (the only library in the village) is tiny, and the book selection odd: a great deal of fantasy and science fiction, sports books, a few classics, and several complete collections of Harry Potter. Even the shelving is idiosyncratic, with the Ultimate Baseball Book (a sport absolutely impossible to play on tundra) next to Using Maps and Globes and The Mystery of Stonehenge; a biography of every professional sports team sits next to books on teenage suicide (not irrelevant in village communities), and a history of the Crow Indians next to Robert Ballard’s book on the Titanic. Almost all the books are in English. The Yup'ik have a written language, designed for them by Moravian missionaries from Pennsylvania in the nineteenth century, but it is clumsy and archaic and in the 1960s, Irene Reed at the University of Alaska designed the newer, more modern one used now. Some of the books in the school library have the Moravian script on one side, the Reed script on the other because many of the older people predate Dr. Reed. As in most Alaskan villages, the children were forbidden to speak their native language in school but that changed years ago. The first two years of school are in Yup’ik (and the teachers Eskimo) and then they switch to English.

Like most Alaskan villages, Newtok and its school are well-connected by satellite to the rest of the world. Satellite dishes connect computers in the tribal office and the school to the Internet, and the village’s administrative offices are computerized. One schoolroom contains several dozen white Apple Macbooks.

In the schools, children are encouraged to learn a trade such as plumbing, carpentry or an electrical vocation in hopes of bringing the skill and knowledge back to the village. The school is likely the largest employer in Newtok.

Many of the people have phone service and many of the homes get a cable connection to the satellite feeds. If you ask the Newtok inhabitants what they do in their spare time, they will tell you they watch movies.

Heidi Post, a non-Eskimo school teacher from Michigan, in Newtok for the last two years, thought Newtok was “gross” and “disgusting” when she came for the first time, she told Amy Chaussé. But she stayed and is now part of the community, engaged to a young Yup’ik man. Her initial reaction is hardly unreasonable. Skinned fish hang from wooden posts on top of shack homes, floors are smeared with blood and guts from baby seals that are cut up in the middle of the small dwellings. She would try to teach her students about sanitation and cleanliness but was informed that they don’t get sick. She’s a kasaq (pronounced gussuk) which means white person, and only kasaqs get sick, she was told. That is patently untrue. Indeed, Alaska is the only state requiring children to get hepatitis B vaccine before they can enter school because of disease in honey bucket homes and towns. For all practical purposes, the Eskimo villages of America’s Alaska are the Third World. The villagers have high rates of lung and skin infections, largely because there are no sewage systems. While 99.4 percent of American homes have indoor plumbing, only two-thirds of the Alaskan villages do. It costs as much as $50,000 to add plumbing to a house because the pipes can’t be easily buried in the permafrost--yet--and even in oil-rich Alaska, that’s expensive. Moreover, the pipes are prone to freeze. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children in these villages were hospitalized for pneumonia eleven times as often as the national average.

Children socialize in front of the school. The rate of gastrointestinal disease was not much higher, however, because there is access to clean drinking water; it was the water used to wash that carried pathogens. The school principal reminds the children to wipe their feet before they enter their own homes and urge their parents to occasionally mop the floor of their homes with bleach. Post says they don’t bother because the next day the women are preparing food again, which often involves dismembering a marine mammal.

Although there is no normal plumbing in Newtok, the faucets in the school produce water. You are told not to drink it because of E-coli, and there are water distilleries by every fountain and sink in the school. The toilets flush and the showers drain, with everything flowing to the main open sewer lagoon a few hundred feet from the school. The lagoon is largely contained by permafrost, which is, of course, melting. You can’t flush toilet paper because it will clog up the pipes. In many Eskimo communities, soiled toilet paper is put in plastic bags and thrown out with the rest of the garbage, a habit some of the people take with them if they move into the cities. The lagoon is where the village’s waste is dumped. Post says there is a huge dump for garbage that is burned a few times in the summer when it is dry but the villager’s do not go out there often, which is evident from trash from soda cans and diapers littered in the muck.
The sidewalks of NewtokThere is a central laundry facility.

The lights stay on in the school 24/7 so the pipes do not freeze and if the generator turns off it may not come on again. The school acts as hotel for visitors. For a small fee, you camp out on mattresses on the floor. Just call in advance. There is a full kitchen and food can be obtained from either of two small stores.

Post describes how the children love the school because it is so clean and she will sometimes “threaten” disobedient children with sending them home.

The school has a large budget to transport its sport teams to neighboring villages, usually by plane or by snow machines. Moving around is easier in the winter when everything is frozen solid and you can use ice roads. Traveling to other towns is how young people meet, date and get married. Post says relationships between young people within the town are discouraged. The elders will intervene if they witness a couple getting too close, she said. The elders will pull the young ones aside and tell them “No, you are brother and sister and must not date.” Post explains that “brother and sister” isn’t literal but in the Yup’ik sense, meaning the entire village is one big family (and they are most likely all blood related). Sociologists who have studied the Eskimo communities don’t believe a word of it. The winters are very long and very dark and there is not very much to do. The men of the village take turns being police, and occasionally, an Alaska State Trooper will fly in, but mostly it is a safe, peaceful town.

Post is fond of the children of Newtok and loves her job. Eskimo children, boys and girls, are irresistible, black eyes and hair and honey-colored skin, round faces that seem most natural when grinning. They are decidedly not shy around strangers. It was impossible for Chaussé or me to move anywhere in Newtok without a cloud of children surrounding us. Chaussé bought candy, which made us particularly welcome, but the children wouldn’t think of begging. They were simply enjoying having company.

The school season just ended when Chaussé and I visited, and Post was off for the summer, returning to her mother’s home with her Yup’ik fiance, George Charles. She wore an ivory carved ring on her finger. She will soon become part of the one big family in Newtok.

The river keeps eating away at the land, creeping closer and closer to the buildings. Newtok is below sea level. The ice that normally protected the village from storms is melting, and the storms have been far more savage than the village elders remember, with winds sometimes reaching hurricane velocity.

The community center is the one building in Newtok that most reflects the village’s plight. It’s popular with teenagers and older people who play bingo at night, but the floor is buckled and wavy as the permafrost beneath it melts. During spring, you will see the locals scooping out water while playing their game. There is no playground for young kids, only the school gym. There isn’t a safe place to put a playground because the equipment will just sink in the thawing permafrost, so the youngest kids play in the gym and out in front of the school, a few yards from the sewer lagoon. The wooden houses have to be lifted or adjusted regularly to compensate for the softening ground. The community center will not get fixed.

According to Orson Smith of the University of Alaska Anchorage, the erosion at Newtok is the result of storm surges, usually caused by the wind. The winds do not have to be particularly strong, just persistent and blowing over long lengths of ocean, something called “fetch.” That wind also blows waves against the shore, in Newtok’s case, from both rivers. The convergence of the Ninglick and the Kealavik made matters worse, changing the angle of the tides. The angle of the wind is important: obviously it has to be blowing toward the land, and of course, the closer to the perpendicular, the worst the effect on the coastline. Normally, sediment is carried away from the shoreline in the winter, and the shoreline gets to rebuild in the calmer summer when the process is reversed. Because of the climate changes, however, that rebuilding does not come close to replacing what the winter washes away in coastal Alaska, Smith says. In many areas, the storms clobber the edge of frozen ground, which resists the battering, and the waves undercut cliffs and bluffs. Buildings are toppling in Shishamef as the low cliffs collapse. When permafrost melts, the land subsides, making it an easier target for the waves.

Like for much of Alaska, good data are nonexistent or ambiguous so no one knows exactly how high the water gets when the area floods, only that it has gotten much worse in the last ten years. It now floods regularly twice a year. In 2005, Newtok was completely inundated. The more erosion, the easier it is for storm surges to hit the town.

The easiest way to avoid this tidal disaster is to get out of its way, which is what the people of Newtok would love to do.

The plight of the village reached a crisis stage when the barge landing on the Ninglick was declared unsafe and Newtok could no longer get summer supplies up the river from the Bering Sea--including diesel fuel to run the generators. Now everything must be flown in and that’s expensive.

“We got suspended from Northland Services [the barge company] because we lost our barge landing,” says Stanley Tom, who has risen to be the community organizer of Newtok. “No landing whatsoever…. It eroded away. It was a solid foundation and the barge companies cannot land. This is tundra, permafrost and it’s just going to sink down. If you leave material on the beach and if there is a south wind, it’s going to erode away and fall off.”

Fortunately for Newtok, they have Tom, forty-seven, father of nine (with a grandson and adopted niece living with him). He is a master at public relations and working the bureaucracy, and almost everyone in Alaska agrees that Newtok is likely to be one of the first town moved--if any town gets moved--and it will be Tom’s victory. “I have sleepless nights,” he says. “After the work, I’m like thinking. I really want my village to have a good clean village.”

Besides running his family’s small general store, Tom is the town’s administrator. He has acquired an astounding collection of documents in his battle, some outgoing to state and federal officials, and some incoming from the same. They cram filing cabinets and computer disks in his offices.

He is not a native to Newtok. He was born in the nearby village of Tununak, but his family traveled between the two villages, and he finally settled in Newtok as a teenager. He was named mayor at the age of twenty-four and has been reasonably in control of the village since then, even after the elders dissolved the village government and decided to govern by traditional rules.

Everyone agrees that Newtok is lost. Tom says that creates two issues. One, where the town should go, and two, and the more difficult question, is who is going to pay for the move. The first question has probably been answered; the second question isn’t close to an answer because no one wants to pay for it.

At first, the elders could not agree among six possible sites. That got whittled down to three by authorities but Tom and the villagers selected a fourth, nine miles away and across the river on Nelson Island. The site has the advantage of being on the south bank of the river, away from the thrust of the erosion. The new village will be called Mertarvik. Other Yup’ik who already live on the island don’t object to their neighbors moving closer.

The state Department of Transportation, is building a barge landing near Mertarvik, Tom says. All the other sites were too rocky and too high. The fact they can put the landing there is a de facto concession for the location, he says. The reconnaissance for the new runway has been completed and a well for water has been drilled.

“We are moving. There is no way of stopping us,” he says. “This winter they are going to bring in equipment to build roads near a quarry so they can test the rocks.”

© Text and photos [except for the Yup''ik girl] by Joel N. Shurkin, 2009. All rights reserved.
© Photo of Yup'ik girl by Amy Chassé, 2009. All rights reserved.