As Oceans Rise, Arctic Circle Town Offers Front-Row Seat To Climate Change
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Melting ice in Antarctica could raise sea levels by as much as 3 feet by the end of this century. That's according to new research out this week. With ice melting fast in other places, too, scientists now predict the total rise of the sea could reach 5 or 6 feet by 2100. And the impact will be felt from Antarctica all the way to the other tip of the planet, the Arctic Circle. That is home to Richard Beneville. He is the mayor of Nome, Alaska, and he's on the line from there now. Mayor Beneville, welcome to the program.
RICHARD BENEVILLE: It's a pleasant surprise to be on it. Thank you very much.
KELLY: It is a pleasure to have you on. And I have to confess, I had not heard of Nome. For others who may not know, you spell it N-O-M-E. I love the motto on your town website - There's No Place Like Nome.
BENEVILLE: Well, of course, what else could it be?
BENEVILLE: I mean, what else could it be?
KELLY: You're speaking to us from your living room. You can see the ocean outside your window. Do you see evidence - just from where you're sitting right now of this climate change?
BENEVILLE: Yeah, I do, as a matter of fact. As I look out up to the ocean, for about half a mile we have attached shore ice. And beyond that is open water. Usually I can see the other side of the ice pack, but I can't today. Our ice is about a third as thick as it used to be and the water temperature is a bit warmer. So climate change - no doubt.
KELLY: This is all very relevant because what led us to you was a story that we spotted about a cruise ship, a very big cruise ship big enough...
KELLY: ...To carry about 1,700 people...
KELLY: ...Which a decade ago would never have been able to make a stop in your port in Nome because, as you say, the sea was frozen. And this ship is due to sail and stop at your port this summer. What do you make of that?
BENEVILLE: Well, I think we have been getting traffic, small adventures-size cruise ships going across the Northwest Passage for 20 years. So it's not new. What is new is the size of the ship. And so there are always the what ifs. Our port is icebound from October 1 to June 1. Well, in the last 10 years, let's make that mid-December to almost mid-May because of climate change. So that allows the Bering Strait, which is about 40 miles to the Northwest of us, to be accessible more often than it has, in fact. Then our dream is to expand our port to a deep-water port because the future is coming to us. I mean, as the Bering Strait becomes more accessible, the Russians have amped up their traffic through the Strait commercially. The same is true as it goes on our side. So the challenges are greater as transportation increases, which it has.
KELLY: When you say the traffic is growing, when you say the future is coming and you would like Nome to become more of a deep-water port, you have a population of about 4,000 people in Nome, am I right?
BENEVILLE: Just under, about 3800.
KELLY: So if a cruise ship of this size, carrying 1,700 people docks, that swells your ranks by about 50 percent. How do people in Nome feel about all those tourists?
BENEVILLE: Well, we have a tourism town. Nome is gold rush town. It's got its wonderful history. And we have added to our normal cruise ship offering of tours around Nome. I'm involved with the tour that is in Nome that has about four stops, including a gold panning. And I'm your gold panner. Hello central - I'm an old gypsy from New York who's teaching people how to pan gold. I love it.
KELLY: I'm sold.
BENEVILLE: But what you say, there is truth in. There is change afoot. It is to some more difficult than others, this idea of that many people. It's not a ship coming. It's just a change in life a bit.
KELLY: That's Mayor Richard Beneville talking about change that is coming in Nome, Alaska. Mayor Beneville, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BENEVILLE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.