Native Alaskan Villagers May Become the First U.S. Climate Refugees

, deputy director, Climate & Energy Program | August 28, 2015, 1:44 pm EST
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The health, future, and fate of thousands of native villagers and their cultural heritage hangs in the balance as rapid climate change tightens its grip on Alaska.

Of Alaska’s 213 native villages, 184 are already experiencing severe problems with flooding and erosion. Thirty-one had already been identified by the U.S. Government as under “imminent threat” six years ago.

President Obama will see first-hand the impacts of climate change next week, when he is expected to visit northwest Alaska and meet with residents of one of the most imperiled communities after speaking at an international climate conference in Anchorage.

Alaska is the largest state, with spectacular wilderness, abundant natural resources, and a population of just over 700,000 people—some 14 percent of which are Native Alaskans. The state has more than 33,000 miles of coastline and over 12,000 rivers. Most Native Alaskan villages are located on remote stretches of coast or inland waterways and for many of them, increased flooding and erosion has become a major and growing problem in recent years.

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere else

The climate has warmed twice as fast in Alaska as in the rest of the U.S. during the last half century. The effects can be seen everywhere on the landscape.

Permafrost is melting, causing ground slumping and accelerating erosion on riverbanks and coasts. Extreme rainfall is increasing, bringing increased risks of flooding. Stream temperatures are on the rise, causing problems for wild salmon. Devastating beetle damage to forests is readily apparent. Large wildfires are becoming more prevalent. Perhaps of greatest concern to Alaska Native communities, though, are the changes in sea ice.

Sea ice extent and volume has been declining during the last 35 years and the most recent eight years have been the eight years with least sea ice. March 2015 marked the lowest ever Arctic sea ice extent. Melting ice is part of a self-reinforcing cycle of change.  As more ice melts, exposing the dark water below, instead of being reflected back by the bright white ice cover, solar radiation heats the ocean, which in turn accelerates the loss of ice.

The terrain for the scientific work conducted by ICESCAPE scientists on July 4, 2010, is Arctic sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea. The five-week field mission is dedicated to sampling the physical, chemical and biological characteristics of the ocean and sea ice. Impacts of Climate change on the Eco-Systems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment (ICESCAPE) is a multi-year NASA shipborne project. The bulk of the research will take place in the Beaufort and Chukchi SeaÕs in summer of 2010 and fall of 2011. Photo Credit: (NASA/Kathryn Hansen)

Scientists investigate Arctic sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea. Photo: Kathryn Hansen/NASA

Changes in seasonal ice conditions disastrous for Native Alaskans

Ice is vital for Alaska Native communities whose cultures still center on subsistence hunting, fishing, and harvesting wild foods. Seasonal ice is exploited by hunters in pursuit of fish, wildfowl, seals, walrus and in some communities, whales.

When seasonal ice is late in forming, or fails to form at all, traditional hunts are delayed or disrupted. Walrus hunts in Gambrell, Savoonga, and Diomede have all been badly hit by shifting ice conditions in recent years. The hunts provide vital food resources and income from carved tusk ivory. Thinning ice is increasingly dangerous to travel over and hunters’ lives are at risk too.

Some of the most threatened Alaskan villages, however, have an even bigger problem with the loss of ice. Where seasonal sea ice forms in the fall along the coast of western Alaska, it protects coastal villages from storms and coastline erosion. Ice is now forming later, or not at all, and the communities are left exposed, vulnerable, and threatened by storms.

At least 12 villages are so at risk that their residents know they will have to move wholesale to new sites. The people of these villages may become the first U.S. climate refugees. Their fate, however, offers a glimpse of what may happen to more and more high-risk coastal communities, not just in Alaska, but in the lower 48 as well. For although the problem of seasonal ice and permafrost melt is unique in the U.S. to Alaska, there are many other communities that are vulnerable to encroaching tides, coastal erosion, and even the possibility of permanent inundation and eventual relocation.

In Alaska, of the 12 communities already known to need to move, eight are likely to be able to be able to do so gradually, by migrating over a number of years to nearby higher ground. But four villages—Kivalina, Koyuyuk, Shishmaref, and Newtok—will need to move wholesale to new sites, perhaps some considerable distance away.

Like many native communities in the U.S., Alaskan Native villages’ problems have been exacerbated by historical government policies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with a Federal government requirement that all Native Alaskan children attend schools, communities that had for many, many generations migrated between seasonal hunting and fishing camps were forced to consolidate and settle in permanent settlements. The location of the villages was largely determined by where barges could navigate to bring in building materials for the new schools. So where previous generations were able to respond and adapt to environmental changes, the Native Alaskans newly rooted in one place became less able to adapt to changes.

Storms, floods, and erosion precipitating a health crisis

Now, with rapid warming in the Arctic, the combination of loss of protective seasonal ice, thawing permafrost, and greater wave heights near the shore, coastal erosion, flooding, and storm damage is rampant.

For example, Newtok, a Yup’ik Eskimo village on the Ninglick River in western Alaska lost three quarters of a mile of tundra in front of the village between 1954 and 2003. The erosion is projected to reach the school building by 2017. Storms and permafrost thaw in recent years have worsened erosion and flooding. The village water supply has repeatedly been flooded and raw sewage and waste have been spread through the community. Lack of sanitary conditions and contamination of drinking water has created a growing public health crisis in the village, with a high proportion of village infants having to be hospitalized more than 50 miles away in recent years. Newtok residents have voted to relocate and have even found an alternative site, but lack of a coordinating Federal agency to work with, the involvement of 25 different state and federal agencies, and the absence of funds have meant that the process has almost ground to a halt.

Kivalina is at risk. Photo: ShoreZone/Flickr

Kivalina, Alaska. Photo: ShoreZone/Flickr

Further north, Kivalina, an Inupiaq Eskimo village on a narrow barrier island in the Chukchi sea less than 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is losing an average of 35 feet of shoreline annually to winter storms. Efforts to create effective coastal defenses and sea walls have failed and the residents have voted to leave the island, but an alternative site has not yet been found. The US Government Accountability Office has estimated the cost of moving this village of approximately 400 people to be between $90 and $400 million. Contrast this amount with the $50 million that President Obama has pledged to support all Native American communities in the U.S. with climate adaptation and you begin to see the scale of the problem that we as a nation face.

To effectively support climate adaptation nationally the U.S. will need to find major new sources of revenue, perhaps through some form of carbon pricing that would also help reduce the rate of carbon emissions that are causing the problem. Alaskan Native villages are on the front lines of the climate crisis, but the fate of these communities, with their thousands of years of subsistence traditions behind them and their rich cultural heritage at risk, should be a warning for all of us.

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  • Binisdead

    What horses**t!

  • Ralph Futch

    Between $250k and $1m per person to relocate??? I’m in the wrong business.

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