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A melting Alaska draws visitors

Warming five times faster than the rest of the world, the state is seeing ecotourism change with the climate.

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Tourists still flock to Alaska to see Mount McKinley and ice caves, but a small and steady stream of visitors now head to the last frontier to see thawing tundra, crumbling glaciers, and ailing forests.

Take Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village on the state's remote northwest coast. Known for exquisite ivory carvings and high-quality seal oil, it lures travelers these days because of its precarious perch on melting land. When a team of scientists and religious leaders arrived in August, a highlight of the tour was viewing a house that had tumbled over the edge of the beach bluff; A storm had cut 20 feet from the shoreline previously held fast by frozen permafrost and sea-ice buildup.

"To many of us, Alaska is the distant early-warming system for the future of climate change," says Eric Chivian, of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, which organized the trip.

Because Alaska is heating up more than five times faster than the world as a whole, scientists, congressmen, foreign dignitaries, and the curious are coming to see the effects of global warming firsthand. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana came here recently to hold a field hearing on the effects of warming on native villages. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich led a tour for mayors from the lower 48 last year. Some tourists say they come to see Alaska before some of its most striking features disappear.

This summer, a pair of professional surfers from Hawaii came to have themselves filmed riding the huge waves created by crashing chunks of ice falling off of Child's Glacier near the Prince William Sound town of Cordova. "It was the heaviest rush just sitting out there, dwarfed by this enormous glacier face, waiting for the whole thing to crash down in front of us and hoping we'd survive it when it did," surfer Garrett McNamara reported on his Web page.

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