The Native village of Shishmaref in western Alaska will face a vote on Tuesday, deciding whether they wish to stay where they have lived for generations or to relocate in an effort to escape the effects of climate change. The barrier island village is finding it harder and harder to hunt for food and to keep rising ocean waters from threatening their homes.
Over the years, Shishmaref residents have noticed longer months of warm weather in their village on the Chukchi Sea. This has impeded their generations-long traditions of hunting for seal, fishing, and gathering traditional summertime plants for sustenance. Longer periods of time before sea ice forms also means heavier ship traffic, leading to increased pollution and reducing the amount of marine life in the area. Locals also have to worry about warmer temperatures inviting invasive plant species and harmful algae blooms in their water supply.
The 650 people living in Shishmaref are voting on August 16 to decide whether they will relocate or stay. Even if they decide to pick up and move, the estimated funds for such an undertaking are at about $200 million. Esau Sinnok, an 18-year-old climate change activist from the Alaskan village, plans on running for mayor to assist with raising grants for the move to the mainland, when the time comes. He told Grist, “What’s special about Shishmaref is that we’re all family.” A relocation would be just as much about finding a new space to settle as finding a way to preserve the community and traditions of a displaced people who consider each other family.