The slow-moving disaster being visited on the village of Newtok is a familiar one in Alaska. People are losing the ground beneath their feet, because of erosion.
Climate change has accelerated the normal process of erosion along Alaska's rivers and coasts -- especially near the shores of the Bering and Arctic seas.
Warmer temperatures melt the permafrost, or frozen sub-surface layers which helped bind together the soil. Heavier rains produce more floods, and swollen rivers which wash away the soil. Waves break higher, because of sea-level rise, clawing at beaches.
Meanwhile, the sea ice that provided a barrier against intense storms has thinned and retreated, exposing coastal areas to tsunami-sized waves and 100 mph winds that are not uncommon in storms coming off the Bering Sea.
Alaskans have already begun exploring how to find the way back to solid ground. Some small communities may be able to reinforce coastlines by building broad, sloping rock walls known as revetments. But bringing heavy equipment, building materials and skilled labour to remote locations is prohibitively expensive -- three or four times more than a comparable project anywhere else. The construction season is also short, further adding to the cost.
One afternoon in the waning days of winter, the most powerful man in Newtok, Alaska, hopped on a plane and flew 1,000 miles to plead for the survival of his village. Stanley Tom, Newtok's administrator, had a clear purpose for his trip: find the money to move the village on the shores of the Bering Sea out of the way of an approaching disaster caused by climate change.
Newtok was rapidly losing ground to erosion. The land beneath the village was falling into the river. Tom needed money for bulldozers to begin preparing a new site for the village on higher ground. He needed funds for an airstrip. He came back from his meetings in Juneau, the Alaskan state capital, with expressions of sympathy -- but nothing in the way of the cash he desperately needed. "It's really complicated," he said. "There are a lot of obstacles."
Those obstacles -- financial, legal, and a supremely frustrating bureaucratic process -- had slowed down the move for so long that some in Newtok, which is about 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates the U.S. from Russia, feared they would be stuck as the village went down around them, houses swallowed up by the river.
"It's really alarming," said Tom, slumped in an armchair a few hours after his return to the village. "I have a hard time sleeping, and I'm getting up early in the morning. I am worried about it every day."
The uncertainty was tearing the village apart. It also began to turn the village against Tom.
Over the winter, a large group of villagers decided that their administrator was not up to the job. By the time he returned from this particular trip, the dissidents had voted to replace the village council and to sack Tom -- a vote that he ignored.
"The way I see it, we need someone who knows how to do the work," said Katherine Charles, one of Tom's most vocal critics. "I feel like we are being neglected. We are still standing here and we don't know when we are going to move. For years now we have been frustrated. I have to ask myself: Why are we even still here?"
In September 2007, a rising star of Alaskan politics dared to take on one of the toughest, most challenging issues for any leader: climate change. That summer, seasonal ice cover had fallen to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979, leaving much of the Arctic as open water. A few months earlier, Al Gore had won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth.
It seemed as if the timing was right to deal with climate change, and so the politician approached a group of high-level officials to develop a climate change strategy for Alaska.
Their leader was Sarah Palin, the then-governor of Alaska before her entry into national Republican party politics. "Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural, and economic issue important to all Alaskans," said Palin, announcing two new working groups on climate change.
"As a result of this warming, coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires, and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans," she went on.
It's easy to see the appeal for Lisa and Jeff Charles of being at the forefront of the Alaskan village of Newtok's move to a new location.
The couple, who have six young children, were allotted one of the first houses in Mertarvik -- as the villagers call the chosen relocation site -- nine miles south of Newtok on Nelson Island.
The house allotted to the Charles family was hardly palatial: 1,350 square feet on a single level with an open-plan kitchen and living area, four bedrooms, and one bathroom.
But it's twice as big as the place Jeff built when he was 21, adding on two rooms after he married Lisa and their household grew to six children under the age of 12, a chihuahua, and a couple of puppies. There is no running water so the family use a big plastic barrel in the kitchen to store water.
The new house, fitted with wood panelling and new appliances, sits on a high ridge of volcanic rock and is flooded with light. It is supposed to have flush toilets when it is complete, unlike their current home. "This place feels maybe like a mansion compared to our other house," said Lisa. "We can't wait to move across."
Sabrina Warner keeps having the same nightmare: a huge wave rearing up out of the water and crashing over her home, forcing her to swim for her life with her toddler son.
"I dream about the water coming in," she said. The landscape in winter on the Bering Sea coast seems peaceful, the tidal wave of Warner's nightmare trapped by snow and several feet of ice. But the calm is deceptive. Spring break-up will soon restore the Ninglick River to its full violent force.
In the dream, Warner climbs on to the roof of her small house. As the waters rise, she swims for higher ground: the village school which sits on 20-foot pilings.
Even that isn't high enough. By the time Warner wakes, she is clinging to the roof of the school, desperate to be saved.
Warner's vision is not far removed from a reality written by climate change. The people of Newtok, on the west coast of Alaska and about 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates the state from Russia, are living a slow-motion disaster that will end, very possibly within the next five years, with the entire village being washed away.
The Ninglick River coils around Newtok on three sides before emptying into the Bering Sea. It has steadily been eating away at the land, carrying off 100 feet or more some years, in a process moving at unusual speed because of climate change. Eventually all of the villagers will have to leave, becoming America's first climate change refugees.
It is not a label or a future embraced by people living in Newtok. Yup'ik Eskimo have been fishing and hunting by the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries and the villagers reject the notion they will now be forced to run in chaos from ancestral lands.
But exile is undeniable. A report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [PDF] predicted that the highest point in the village -- the school of Warner's nightmare -- could be underwater by 2017. There was no possible way to protect the village in place, the report concluded.
If Newtok cannot move its people to the new site in time, the village will disappear. A community of 350 people, nearly all related to some degree and all intimately connected to the land, will cease to exist, its inhabitants scattered to the villages and towns of western Alaska, Anchorage, and beyond.
The three-month forecast noted an additional hazard for the Midwest, with heavy, late snows setting up conditions for flooding along the Red and Souris rivers in North Dakota.
"It's a mixed bag of flooding, drought, and warm weather," Laura Furgione, the deputy director of NOAA's weather service, told a conference call with reporters.
Last year produced the hottest year since record keeping began more than a century ago, with several weeks in a row of 100+ degree days. It also brought drought to close to 65 percent of the country by summer's end.
The cost of the drought is estimated at above $50 billion, greater than the economic damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.
The drought area has now fallen back somewhat to 51 percent of the country. But even the heavy snowfalls some parts of the country have seen were not enough to recharge the soil, the NOAA scientists said.
The agency was forecasting above-normal temperatures in the Southwest and other parts of the country, with only the Pacific Northwest expected to experience below-normal temperatures.
It said drought conditions were likely to remain in the central and western parts of the country, and could expand in California, the Southwest, the southern Rockies, and Texas. The Florida panhandle should also anticipate drought conditions, according to the forecast.
Scientists warned of an increased risk of wildfires, because of the dry conditions, for parts of Minnesota and Northern Iowa.
Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120 million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change, the Guardian has learned.
The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of think tanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarizing “wedge issue" for hardcore conservatives.
The millions were routed through two trusts, Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund, operating out of a generic town house in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Donors Capital caters to those making donations of $1 million or more.
Whitney Ball, chief executive of the Donors Trust, told the Guardian that her organization assured wealthy donors that their funds would never be diverted to liberal causes.
"We exist to help donors promote liberty which we understand to be limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise," she said in an interview.
By definition that means none of the money is going to end up with groups like Greenpeace, she said. "It won't be going to liberals."
Ball won't divulge names, but she said the stable of donors represents a wide range of opinion on the American right. Increasingly over the years, those conservative donors have been pushing funds towards organizations working to discredit climate science or block climate action.
Donors exhibit sharp differences of opinion on many issues, Ball said. They run the spectrum of conservative opinion, from social conservatives to libertarians. But in opposing mandatory cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, they found common ground.
"Are there both sides of an environmental issue? Probably not," she went on. "Here is the thing. If you look at libertarians, you tend to have a lot of differences on things like defence, immigration, drugs, the war, things like that compared to conservatives. When it comes to issues like the environment, if there are differences, they are not nearly as pronounced."
By 2010, the dark money amounted to $118 million distributed to 102 think tanks or action groups which have a record of denying the existence of a human factor in climate change, or opposing environmental regulations.
The money flowed to Washington think tanks embedded in Republican party politics, obscure policy forums in Alaska and Tennessee, contrarian scientists at Harvard and lesser institutions, even to buy up DVDs of a film attacking Al Gore.
Future generations of Americans can expect to spend 25 days a year sweltering in temperatures above 100 degrees F (38 degrees C), with climate change on course to turn the country into a hotter, drier, and more disaster-prone place.
The National Climate Assessment, released in draft form on Friday, provided the fullest picture to date of the real-time effects of climate change on U.S. life, and the most likely consequences for the future.
The 1,000-page report, the work of the more than 300 government scientists and outside experts, was unequivocal on the human causes of climate change, and on the links between climate change and extreme weather.
"Climate change is already affecting the American people," the draft report said. "Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense including heat waves, heavy downpours and in some regions floods and drought. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting."
The report, which is not due for adoption until 2014, was produced to guide federal, state, and city governments in America in making long-term plans.
By the end of the 21st century, climate change is expected to result in increased risk of asthma and other public health emergencies, widespread power blackouts, mass transit shutdowns, and possibly shortages of food.
The Mississippi as seen from Ed Drager's tug boat is a river in retreat: A giant beached barge is stranded where the water dropped, with sand bars springing into view. The floating barge office where the tug boat captain reports for duty is tilted like a funhouse. One side now rests on the exposed shore. "I've never seen the river this low," Drager said. "It's weird."
The worst drought in half a century has brought water levels in the Mississippi close to historic lows and could shut down all shipping in a matter of weeks -- unless Barack Obama takes extraordinary measures.
Without rain, water levels on the Mississippi are projected to reach historic lows this month, the National Weather Service said in its latest four-week forecast.
"All the ingredients for us getting to an all-time record low are certainly in place," said Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in St. Louis. "I would be very surprised if we didn't set a record this winter."
The drought has already created a low-water choke point south of St. Louis, near the town of Thebes, where pinnacles of rock extend upwards from the river bottom, making passage treacherous.
Shipping companies are hauling 15 barges at a time instead of a typical string of 25, because the bigger runs are too big for current operating conditions.
Barges are being sent off with lighter loads, making for more traffic, with more delays and back-ups. Stretches of the river are now reduced to one-way traffic. A long cold spell could make navigation even trickier: Shallow, slow-moving water is more likely to get clogged up with ice.
Current projections suggest water levels could drop too low to send barges through Thebes before the new year -- unless there is heavy rainfall.