An Alaskan Village Prepares to Move As the Sea Encroaches

By Nathaniel Scharping | August 19, 2016 2:27 pm

The village of Shishmaref seen from the air. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A small Alaskan village near the Arctic Circle has voted to pack up and move as its island slips into the sea due to climate change.

Despite the grim circumstances, the vote among villagers was close, with 89 supporting a move and 78 opposing it. The nearly even split speaks to the difficulty of severing ties with a place that has harbored family generations for over four centuries, providing shelter, sustenance and comfort in a place reachable only by boat, plane and sometimes snowmobile.

Isolated and Imperiled

The village of Shishmaref sits on a narrow barrier island some 120 miles north of Nome near the Bering Strait. For the past 35 years, warming oceans have melted sea ice that once shielded the low-lying island from shore erosion. The island’s permafrost is also melting.

The Inupiat Eskimo islanders last voted to leave in 2001, according to Esau Sinnok, an Arctic Youth Ambassador born in Shishmaref who wrote an essay in 2015 detailing the island’s plight. But the vote was never put into action because of the steep cost of moving the village to a mainland site some five miles away.

In 2004, it was estimated to cost $180 million to relocate the 650 inhabitants to a new site. The financial cost is compounded by the social and emotional aspects of uprooting generations of heritage, including the Inupiat people’s traditional hunting and fishing practices on and around the island. Those traditions have been threatened by climate change as well, as the sea ice on which the villagers hunt shrinks. This jeopardizes not only their heritage, but their livelihood as well.

Problem Not New

report released this February estimated that some 200 feet of shoreline has been lost since 1969. Around $27 million has already been spent on temporary measures to shore up the shore, the report said, and those repairs will last only about 15 years. Sinnok says that the islanders have already moved 13 houses that were in danger of falling into the ocean.

Shishmaref is among 31 Alaskan villages imperiled by warming oceans and rising seas, according to a 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office. Of those, 12 villages plan to move. The costs are prohibitively high, however, and at the time of the government report only one village had made significant headway toward relocation.

In all likelihood, Shishmaref will remain in place for the foreseeable future, according to CNN. The logistics of moving an entire village, paired with the cost, mean that any move will take years to enact.

The village is something of a bellwether for the nation. As the prospect of rising seas threatens cities from New York to Miami, a tiny village at the end of North America could be only the tip of the iceberg.

  • OWilson

    Aside from the wailing and gnashing of teeth and maudlin candlelight vigils for folks who settle down and pitch their worldly goods on river flood plains, land spits and beaches (thanks CNN!), we have 40,000 people flooded out in Louisiana (again) with 11,000 in emergency shelters (again)

    “We will rebuild!” – Herbert Hoover, 1927

    “We will rebuild!” – Army Corp of Engineers, 1990

    “We will rebuild!” – Louisiana Gov. Blanco September 15, 2005

    “We will rebuild!” – Pres, Obama July, 2013

    “We will rebuild” – Donald Trump August 18, 2016

    “We will rebuild” – (fill in the gap) 2020

    (The line forms to the right for the FEMA money) :)

    • Uncle Al

      Obama was playing golf, Hillarity Ramrod Clitler was playing with herself, Trump One landed in the midst of the flood and stink and despair (Drudge Report). Trump helped offload supplies and ruined his shoes where real heroes fly overhead; maybe next time.

      Perhaps the Clinton Foundation was ministering to a VICTIM! driving last year’s Lamborghini. Look, yer not gonna give some toothless freak $50 worth of baby diapers and formula when another guy is suffering his $200,000 car’s depreciation.

      • OWilson

        You’d think Hillary would show up on behalf of the $3,000,000,000.00 Clinton Family Foundation “charity” and drop a few bucks on canned food, to the flood victim shelters.

        Or send it.

        What kind charity IS the Clinton Family Foundation anyways? :)

        • Small_Businessman

          “Exactly what kind charity IS the Clinton Family Foundation supposed to be anyways?”
          You just answered your own question. It is the CLINTON FAMILY foundation.
          At least Trump donated 70K lbs of food to the victims. It’s not a lot – but more than Clinton or Obama did out of their own pockets.

          • OWilson

            I could never figure out why the Left complain about the 1%, when Hillary has made more money while in public office ($3,000,000,000.00 according to the WP) than any politician since Saddam and Imelda Marcos.

          • Small_Businessman

            It’s pretty simple, actually. The mass media in this country are just an extension of the Democrat Party’s PR machine under the guise of “news”. They lean so far to the left it’s a surprise they don’t fall over.
            And rather than try to ferret out the real facts, the vast majority of the people just accept it.

          • OWilson

            There’s a good chance this reprobate will be your next President.

            Last weekend I had a long conversation with a middle aged relative who works in media in the U.S.

            I know he’s smart, because he asked me what I though of the election :)

            When I told him about some of the more egregious Clinton scandals, he looked at me with a dazed look. “Really?” I pointed him to Google to check it out, but for a guy who gets around, he had no idea.

            The Media is doing a great job!

            Hillary can stay in hiding until election day!

          • Eric John

            OWilson – I’m certainly no fan of Clinton, but your anecdote reeks of phoniness.

          • Eric John

            Yes, it’s true Small Businessman. They’re responsible for brainwashing the international science community into accepting Climate Change.

            Democrats are also responsible for the:

            -Dying Coral Reefs Myth,
            -Over-fishing Myth,
            -Deforestation Myth,
            -Diminishing Fresh Water Myth, and so on.

            Pssst… Stick with what you know: small business.

          • Small_Businessman

            Ah, a typical Lib – trying to change the topic. I said nothing about the Democrats and

            -Dying Coral Reefs Myth,
            -Over-fishing Myth,
            -Deforestation Myth,
            -Diminishing Fresh Water Myth, and so on.

            Those are just weak attempts by a mental moron to deflect the argument.

            I do stick with what I know. Maybe you should learn how to carry on a discussion intelligently. As it is, you debate like Clinton – don’t answer the question, just change the topic.

            And doing it 2 months after the fact. Just before the election, you must be one of Clinton’s stooges.

    • Geoff Schneider

      Boy, someone will get you for this truth you are spreading. Over here in California people complain about drought, build homes and when they wash away each 7 years, they don’t understand.

    • farwest

      Sad to see this site turning into political garbage. There are other places for that stuff.


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