Rising Seas Erode Homes and History in Alaska—Let's Talk Relocation

July 25, 2017 | 9:39 am
Eli Keene
Victoria Herrmann
Principle investigator for America's Eroding Edges

Every sourdough tastes unique.

Sure, they all share the same foundational ingredients – water, flour, and sugar – but the wild yeasts and bacteria that ferment the sugar to create that tart flavor are place-specific. A sourdough baguette from San Francisco, with the Pacific Ocean’s salty breeze sneaking into pantries, tastes different than that of a boule baked at the high altitude of a Denver bakery.

The best sourdough I’ve ever tasted comes from an unassuming bucket tucked underneath Cliff Weyiouanna’s kitchen sink in Shishmaref, Alaska.

The dough is nearly a century old (96 years to be exact), and has been passed down from one generation to the next. It’s rich and tangy in flapjack form, and fills the house with a fresh yeasty smell as Cliff flips them over the gas stove. Cliff has cooked pancakes for hundreds of visitors to Shishmaref – he has the guest books to prove it. Scientists from Japan, hunters from Texas, journalists from Norway, you name it and they’ve sat at Cliff’s breakfast table for a tall stack of sourdough jacks and a strong cup of coffee.

I sat at that kitchen table on a brisk August morning in 2016 with my research partner, Cliff’s girlfriend, and Cliff. The Summer Olympics were playing on a small TV in the corner and freshly picked buckets of berries crowded the floor space waiting to be frozen for winter as we tucked into steaming plates of pancakes.

They were delicious, but we weren’t there for the sourdough jacks. We had come to Shishmaref as part of a year-long research project to understand how erosion and sea level rise are affecting communities across the United States and US Territories.

Through interviewing hundreds of Americans from Alaska to American Samoa, our aim was to identify what is needed at the national level to support towns in need of relocation away from America’s eroding edges.

A few days before Cliff invited us for breakfast, the village of Shishmaref decided in a 94 to 78 vote to relocate in full from its current site onto the Alaska mainland five miles away. Shishmaref sits on a narrow barrier island in the Chukchi Sea. At points, the island measures barely a quarter mile wide.

Shishmaref has been losing land to the sea from natural erosion trends for hundreds of years. But with climate change, that natural trend is getting a lot worse.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a rip rap sea wall to protect much of Shishmaref from 2005 to 2009. The project is the latest in a number of sea walls constructed to try to slow the rate of erosion on Sarichef Island. Photo: Eli Keene

Relocation is now

Climate change is amplified in the Arctic with air and sea temperatures warming twice as fast as most other places on earth and Alaska is no exception. A primary reason for amplification is the surface albedo feedback – the melting of snow and ice that turn white, sunlight reflecting surfaces into darker, heat absorbing spots.

All that heat is melting ice and thawing permafrost, frozen ground, at an unprecedented pace. In normal years in Shishmaref, an icepack usually develops in the fall months around the island. This ice has always acted as a buffer against severe storm surges, forcing waves to break miles off shore instead of against the village.

As the ice disappears, so too does this natural defense.

This loss of ice – combined with the effects of thawing permafrost, softening the very land the village is built upon – have resulted in a loss of three to five feet of shoreline per year, with a single severe storm washing away 50 feet of land. Storms caused such severe erosion in 1997 and 2002 that some homes fell into the ocean and several more needed to be moved.

Talking to Cliff about the recent vote, it’s clear that he’s had this conversation many times before. At 74, he’s witnessed a lot of talk about relocation, including an effort by the community to relocate in 2002 which was later abandoned due to lack of funding.

“When people asked how did I vote, I say, ‘I know we’re not going to get funding from the state or government so I voted to stay,’” he tells us. “I don’t know [if they’ll find funding]. It’s gonna take a long time. They have to go back and test the soil. Last time they had someone from the government drill test every mile. There was three feet of soil and two feet of ice there, so that wasn’t stable. Now they have to work on building the road. It ain’t going to be easy.”

It’s easy to fault Cliff’s vote to protect in place rather than move Shishmaref. An Army Corps of Engineers Alaska Village Erosion Technical Assistance program assessment in April 2006 estimated that Shishmaref had 10 to 15 years before their current site is lost to erosion. And while a recently built gabion seawall will buy the village time, the threat of inundation is imminent and inevitable.

But it’s been 10 months since I was last in Shishmaref. 10 months since their vote to relocate, and no money has materialized to help them move.

Acting City Clerk, Tiffany Magby, reads out the final votes cast in Shishmaref’s 2016 referendum on relocation. Photo: Eli Keene

Lacking federal support for Alaska  

The cost of relocating Shishmaref in full is estimated at $180 million. And Shishmaref isn’t alone. In Alaska, 31 villages are identified by the Army Corps as in imminent threat of being uninhabitable. In Louisiana, Washington, Virginia, and Florida, coastal communities are already having difficult conversations about when managed retreat inland should become their climate change adaptation strategy.

At present, there are at least 13 towns and villages in America that have decided to relocate in part or in full due to the effects of climate change.

These towns may be the first to relocate from rising tides – but they won’t be the last.

UCS’s recent report When Rising Tides Hit Home calculates that within 45 years, by 2060, more than 270 coastal US communities – including many that seldom or never experience tidal flooding today – will be chronically inundated given moderate sea level rise. By the end of the century, that increases to 490 communities, including 40 percent of all East and Gulf Coast oceanfront communities.

At the onset of our project, the aim was to pinpoint particular policy and funding solutions to encourage federally supported, locally implemented climate-induced relocations that would feed into work already being supported by the White House.

We had hoped to provide our findings to an interagency working group on community-led managed retreat and voluntary relocation that President Obama established to develop a framework and action plan for managed retreat.

I wish that this intended goal was still possible. Unfortunately, it is not.

It is clear that the Trump Administration is not interested in protecting the American citizens in Shishmaref, or in any other coastal town across our country, from the effects of climate change we can no longer avoid. His proposed budget plan eliminates key programs for coastal adaptation research and capacity building like the National Sea Grant College Program; zeros out the budget for the Denali Commission, the independent federal agency mandated to facilitate climate-induced relocation in Alaska; and cuts dozens of EPA programs, including infrastructure assistance to Alaska Native villages.

While these actions can be demoralizing, we cannot give up on pressuring this Administration to act on climate adaptation and relocation. President Trump may not believe in protecting American citizens from the impacts of a warming world. But there are hundreds of civil servants and scientists who are still dedicated to helping those in need.

Civil servants like Joel Clement, former director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Interior Department. Joel has worked for seven years to help endangered communities in Alaska like Shishmaref prepare for and adapt to climate change.

But last week, Mr. Clement was reassigned to an ill-fitted role in the Office of Natural Resources Revenue as retaliation for speaking out publicly about the dangers that climate change poses to Alaska Native communities. As he says in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, “During the months preceding my reassignment, I raised the issue with White House officials, senior Interior officials and the international community, most recently at a U.N. conference in June.”

Federal scientists like Joel need our support and advocacy now more than ever before.

We must stand up for science and hold the Trump Administration accountable for silencing civil servants from doing their jobs. That means calling on our elected officials to join together to support empowered communities like Shishmaref to rise above the rides of climate change.

Shishmaref, as seen from just south of the sea wall.Photo: Eli Keene

Solutions for Alaska

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska recently spoke in Juneau, the state’s capital, about the need for climate change action “because we see it here in this state and it is real and I think we’ve got an obligation to help address it.” And last year, Senator Murkowski supported President Obama’s request for $400 million “to cover the unique circumstances confronting vulnerable Alaskan communities, including relocation expenses for Alaska Native villages threatened by rising seas, coastal erosion, and storm surges” in his final budget request to Congress.

Senator Murkowski’s proposed Offshore Production and Energizing National Security Act of 2017, or the OPENS Alaska Act of 2017  primarily aims to increase offshore oil production. But the bill would also direct 12.5 percent of the revenues from offshore development to a newly established Tribal Resilience Program to promote resilient communities through investments in energy systems and critical infrastructure to combat erosion, improve health and safety, and foster resilient communities.

Alaska Native communities on the frontlines of climate change need Senator Murkowski to be much more of a leader on this issue. They need her to educate her senate colleagues on the impacts they are already facing, and champion a strong, well-funded national climate relocation framework.

We also need to begin a conversation about non-governmental solutions to supplement federal and state action on climate-induced relocation in America. We must call on all sectors – private, non-profit, volunteer, philanthropic – to join together to support empowered communities like Shishmaref rise above the tides of climate change.

For example, the Rockefeller Foundations 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which was launched in 2013, aims to help cities around the world become more resilient to the physical, social, and economic challenges that are a growing part of the 21st Century.

Another example is Community Engineering Corps, a partnership between Engineers without Borders, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Water Works Association to bring underserved communities and volunteer engineers together to advance local infrastructure solutions in the United States.

NGOs with legal expertise or pro bono divisions of large law firms could provide partnerships to help towns navigate the legal challenges of retreating inland. And places like the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Society for American Archeology could help to ensure that cultural heritage, historic sites, and local traditions are included in the relocation road map, effectively protecting them, or documenting them with dignity when saving them is not possible.

Edwin Weyiouanna, an award-winning carver from Shishmaref, works on a piece of moose antler. Photo: Eli Keene

Cultural diversity for climate resilience

Ultimately, when I think of the future of coastal communities as seas rise, I don’t think of DC; I think of Cliff and the fresh yeasty smell of sourdough flapjacks for breakfast.

Maybe it’s strange that sourdough is the first thing that comes to mind when I think of the impacts of climate change on America.

At first glance, the biggest loses from climate change are the ones we can see. They are the fallen house into the ocean, the flooded streets after the hurricane, the disappearing edges of America on the maps of our country. These tangible images are what we recall when we think of what stands to be lost as the seas rise.

But there are some things that can’t be rebuilt – the place that you learned how to plant tomatoes with your grandfather that’s now too salty to grow vegetables. The historic buildings that have stood for centuries now under water. The identity of your town as a seaside community and the close-knit bonds within it that let you ask your neighbor to water your plants when you go on vacation.

The unique taste of sourdough that’s been living on Shishmaref for 96 years.

Residents learn to make traditional handicrafts from seal skin at a free workshop. Photo: Eli Keene

This – these local cultures and heritage – this is what the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed spoke about when asked what they are afraid of losing to encroaching seas. And it’s what I think about when President Trump slashes all funding support for protecting American communities from climate change.

The mass loss of history and cultural diversity may seem less important than the billions of dollars of infrastructure damage climate change will cause. But losing our cultures and histories isn’t just about losing part of who we are. It’s also about losing part of our ability to adapt to a warmer world.

Just as the biodiversity of plants and animals improves the resilience of ecosystems, cultural diversity offers a resilient knowledge base for adapting to and counteracting the effects of climate change.

Learning from traditions and history has always been an important part of envisioning a better future. Using cultural practices that have been passed down from generation to generation to adapt to a changing climate is no different.

Cliff’s sourdough passed down from his parents may not help in Shishmaref’s adaptation, but the lessons they passed down about reading the safety of ice conditions will.

Coastal communities across America already have the vision and multigenerational knowledge to adapt to the effects of climate. What they do not have is time to waste on an inactive government. They need the financial support and technical tools to implement their vision. Those of us in privileged positions need to pressure the Trump Administration and Congress to take seriously the issue of relocation before it’s too late.


Victoria Herrmann is the principle investigator for America's Eroding Edges, a research and storytelling project on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities  livelihoods, and cultures. She is also the President & Managing Director of The Arctic Institute and a Gates Scholar at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University.

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