As climate change really kicks in, it is predicted that more and more people around the world will have to start packing their bags and moving as the world around them becomes more uninhabitable. Nations such as Kiribati and the Solomon Islands are already experiencing the loss of entire islands, creating some of the first climate refugees. Now, a town in Alaska has voted to move, making them the first community in the US to relocate due to climate change.
Made up of just 650 residents, the remote town of Shishmaref, on an island just north of the Bering Strait, is at the front line of climate change. Home to the native Iñupiaq people for generations, the community subsists on seal hunting and fishing in the rich surrounding seas. But it is these very waters that are now threatening the existence of the community, which voted on Wednesday 89-78 in favor of relocating the entire town at an estimated cost of $180 million.
The village is built on a barrier island in the Bering Sea. Historically, the community has been protected from the harsh maritime conditions by the sea ice that would surround the island, buffering the storm surges and preventing the land from crumbling into the sea. But that has all changed. With the warming of the Arctic – which is thought to be occurring at a rate twice that of the rest of the planet – the sea ice is disappearing, allowing the waters to wash the island away. As if that wasn’t enough, the permafrost on which the houses are built is also thawing, causing the buildings to sink.
“Over the past 35 years, we've lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet [762 to 914 meters] of land to coastal erosion,” writes Esau Sinnok, a 19-year-old member of the community who became the Arctic youth ambassador and advocate for native peoples in the Arctic fighting climate change. “To put this in perspective: I was born in 1997, and since then, Shishmaref has lost about 100 feet [30 meters]. In the past 15 years, we had to move 13 houses – including my dear grandma Edna’s house – from one end of the island to the other because of this loss of land. Within the next two decades, the whole island will erode away completely.”
Where the town will move to has not yet been decided, but it is looking likely they may have to somehow cover the cost of it themselves, as they have previously been told that no federal money would be available. With the warming of the planet showing no sign of slowing, this is looking likely to become far more of a frequent occurrence, touching every country on Earth.