Kivalina is a tiny, remote Alaskan village that sits on a barrier island some 83 miles above the Arctic circle, and the most recent estimates show the village—home to 400 people—will be entirely underwater by 2025. This is far from news for the island’s Iñupiat inhabitants; according to PRI, the village voted in favor of relocating way back in 1992. But as climate change thins the ice surrounding the island and causes erosion of Kivalina’s shores, questions remain as to where the village will relocate to, and how that move will be paid for.
Climate change is occurring at a notably faster pace in the Arctic, with the region warming at a rate twice the global average. That means the residents of Kivalina have been able to notice trends far earlier than in many other areas. Some 15 years ago they noticed their ice no longer freezes “10 to 8 feet thick, way out in the ocean,” as one community elder described to the Washington Post, but rather sits thin—preventing whaling—and melts faster, which abruptly shortens the hunting seasons on which the villagers rely.
Furthermore, the thinner ice leaves the narrow island’s coastline more vulnerable to erosion. Simply put, Kivalina’s community knows they can no longer stay in their own home, as their ways of life, as well as land, disappear. But Kivalina is the first such case (and certainly not the last) in the United States, and the government simply isn’t equipped to address the situation. As PRI notes: “A disaster declaration releases funding aimed at helping a community rebuild or relocate within the place the disaster occurred. But there are no policies in place to relocate an entire community, like Kivalina, prior to an actual disaster.”
In early 2015 Interior secretary Sally Jewell visited Kivalina, but brought news only of President Obama’s proposal to allocate $50.4 million in Federal funds to help Native America communities address climate change. It’s of little comfort to Kivalina; the relocation of the island’s population alone will cost in the region of $100 million. In 2008, the village attempted to sue 24 fossil fuel companies over the their contribution to climate change, but in 2013 the government refused to hear Kivalina’s case.
And while Kivalina may be the only island in the U.S. that currently faces relocation, the questions facing Kivalina’s residents are far from unique to the area. Other Alaskan barrier islands are able to see the same fate headed their way, as are the inhabitants of barrier islands far away on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Internationally, the village of Vunidogoloa, Fiji has already been relocated inland, while the island nation of Kiribati is in the midst of a long struggle to determine what to do in the face of rising tides.