The town of Shishmaref, Alaska lies on an island 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle and next to the Chukchi Sea. Its residents, Native Alaskan Inupiaq people, can really see Russia from their house! However, the rapidly changing climate, which is changing faster in Alaska than anywhere else in the nation, is keeping the Chukchi Sea from freezing as early as it used to – leaving the shoreline exposed to fall and winter storms. It’s also melting the permafrost upon which the town’s nearly 600 residents have built their homes, and the island is eroding as the permafrost melts.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Over the past 50 years, temperatures across Alaska increased by an average of 3.4 degrees F. Winter warming was even greater, rising by an average of 6.3 degrees F. The rate of warming in Alaska was twice the national average over that same period of time.” Permafrost is a state of permanent freezing that occurs about a foot below the soil level throughout much of Alaska. Alaskans have adapted their infrastructure, including roads and buildings, so that the permafrost supports it. The EPA adds, “When permafrost thaws, roads buckle. Vehicles are only allowed to drive across certain roads in the tundra when the ground is frozen solid. In the past 30 years, the number of days when travel is allowed on the tundra has decreased from 200 days to 100 days per year.”
For those who have built an entire town on permafrost, as in Shishmaref, the melt can have devastating effects. The Huffington Post reports: “Fourteen houses on Shishmaref’s north side had to be put on skids and dragged down to the opposite end of the island after a major storm in October 1997. Another big storm in October 2001 sloughed off huge chunks of the northern shoreline.”
The Army Corps of Engineers estimates the island to be losing between 2.7 to 8.9 feet of shoreline per year. For a people who live almost entirely from the ocean, the effects are devastating. The town voted to move in 2002, but moving a town is much harder to do than it looks. And the cost to move the town is so prohibitive that it’s almost impossible to accomplish. The estimated cost? $179 million!
But if Americans believe that Shishmaref is isolated, they need to think again. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), 16.4 million Americans live in a coastal floodplain and as much as 50 percent of the coastline in the U.S. could be at risk due to rising sea levels. Saving one village may not seem significant, but if we can’t save them, how will we move everyone else when the time comes?
“My mantra is: we need to get a relocation institutional framework in place now,” said Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project. “This does not bode well for other places in the world that are going to be faced with this issue.”
Photos by Alaska Climate Change