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Ear to the Ground

Teenager Sues Alaska for Failing to Protect His Melting Home

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Posted on Mar 16, 2013
The Tedster (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An 18-year-old Yup’ik Eskimo who could lose his home to melting tundra is suing the state of Alaska for failing to take action on climate change.

Ice flowing down the Kugkaktlik River in the springtime—a highway that provides access to the nearest towns—is carving away at the bank on which Nelson Kanuk’s home sits because the ground is increasingly soft due to thawing permafrost.

“It’s disappearing,” Kanuk told NPR of the bank. Last spring, the Kanuks lost 8 feet from their yard. “And then, as the summer progressed, we lost another 5 feet,” he said. “Last fall, before I left there was about 40 feet or so. But when springtime comes there’s definitely going to be a couple more feet that will be lost.”

Generations of Kanuk’s tribe have depended for survival on a healthy freezing and thawing cycle. “We actually go out into the tundra, and we harvest salmonberries. We actually go out into the river, and we fish for salmon. And then we go out into the ocean in the springtime, and that’s how we get the seal meat we need to survive in the winter time,” he said.

—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

NPR:

Kanuk is one of six young Alaskans suing the state, with help from the organization Our Children’s Trust. The Oregon-based nonprofit filed lawsuits on behalf of young plaintiffs against nine states and the federal government. The lawsuits ask the states to consider the atmosphere a public trust and to exercise their duty to protect it.

Part of the argument is that if the state of Alaska can manage other natural resources under its control — for example, by issuing hunting or fishing licenses — it should also be able to manage what’s released into the atmosphere.

… Kanuk says the political process might be too slow, especially as he watches the river move closer to swallowing his home. “It’s not a few years anymore. It could be within the next year,” he says.

A state court judge in Anchorage dismissed Kanuk’s case, and he’s appealing that decision. He says he understands some people might view an eroding riverbank as a consequence of living in a remote wilderness. But he doesn’t see it that way.

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