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Alaska's Ice Roads Are Melting Early This Year, With Devastating Consequences


Now we take you to southwest Alaska, where in winter, frozen rivers are an important means of transportation. They're called ice roads. But this spring has seen record-breaking warm temperatures, and the ice roads are melting early. That is having devastating consequences. Krysti Shallenberger of Alaska's Energy Desk reports.

KRYSTI SHALLENBERGER, BYLINE: Bethel residents woke up to a warning earlier this month to stop driving on the frozen Kuskokwim River.


MARK LEARY: Last night, our worst fears were realized.

SHALLENBERGER: That's Bethel search and rescue volunteer Mark Leary talking on KYUK radio's morning show. He along with a handful of other volunteers had just rescued three men who had been traveling on all-terrain vehicles and fell through thin ice. The rescuers crept very slowly over the weak ice, surrounded by open water and tethered to a safety line. One of them fell through, but he managed to pull himself out. In the end, they were not able to save two other men, who died.

Charles Guest is another volunteer who took part in the rescue.

CHARLES GUEST: As the ice rots more and more, I don't think that we'd be able to pull that off again.

SHALLENBERGER: Historically, ice doesn't get this weak in Bethel until May, but that has changed. This year, it started happening in March. Again, here's Mark Leary.


LEARY: This is something we haven't experienced before so early and getting bad so fast.

SHALLENBERGER: As the climate warms, Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the global average. This year, Bethel experienced its warmest February and March on record. Now the melting ice is disrupting daily life like subsistence hunting. Most of the people in the region are Alaska Native. Hunting and fishing provides a large part of their diet. John Fitka lives in Tuntutuliak, and usually he's outside on the frozen river hunting seal this time of year. But now...

JOHN FITKA: Trail conditions are just too dangerous to risk it. I did get two small seal. I guess we'll have to make do with what we have (laughter).

SHALLENBERGER: Bethel and surrounding communities are off the road system. In the winter, people traveling to other nearby villages drive on the ice road. In the summer, they travel by boat. It's much cheaper than the only other option - flying. At the Bethel airport, I meet Christopher Ondola on his way back to his village, Tuntutuliak. He usually drives the ice road this time of year, but this time, he's flying even though it's just 44 miles away.

CHRISTOPHER ONDOLA: Yeah. This year, I was just too scared to go anywhere on my snow machine because of the ice.

SHALLENBERGER: The high price of a ticket limits the number of times he can come to Bethel to pick up groceries, fresh produce and wood for his steam bath. Last month, Ondola also lost a friend who drove a snow machine into open water.

ONDOLA: It's just too freaky scary.

SHALLENBERGER: Last week, friends and family attended funeral services for the men who fell through the ice on all-terrain vehicles. Normally they would have driven on the ice road. This time they flew. For NPR News, I'm Krysti Shallenberger in Bethel, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Krysti Shallenberger