May 15, 2013
Sea-Level Rise Will Overtake One Alaskan Town By 2017
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
If someone said “climate refuge” to you, what would come to mind? More than likely, the image of someone from a small tropical island in the Pacific, or of a low-lying delta like in Bangladesh — places where residents have been forced out of their homes by sea-level rise.
The strict definition of a refugee in international law, according to a report by The Guardian, is rather narrow and typically includes only people displaced by war, violence or persecution. It does not include environmental changes, though there are many people being displaced from their homes by the impact of a changing climate.
Temperatures are warming faster than the global average in the far north where climate change is occurring rapidly. Because of this, the typical picture of the climate change refugee is becoming more diverse as the sea ice is in retreat and the permafrost is thawing.
Climate change such as this is bringing real time adversity to the residents of the remote villages of Alaska. Nearly all the residents of these villages are native Alaskans, and their homes are already experiencing the signature effects of climate change in Alaska — flooding and erosion. Many villages, including Newtok, are actively making plans to leave the homes and lands they have occupied for centuries to find safety elsewhere.
The residents of New Orleans were forced to leave their homes because of one cataclysmic event — Hurricane Katrina. In Alaska, by comparison, climate change is a slow-moving disaster with very real effects for the native Alaskans who are going to become America´s first climate refugees.
The village of Newtok sits on the west coast of Alaska about 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates Alaska from Russia. The villagers are living in a slow-motion disaster that will end with the entire village being washed away, possibly within the next five years.
The biggest cause for the erosion is the Ninglick River. The village is situated in an oxbow — a “u” shaped bend - which curls around three sides of Newtok before emptying into the Bering Sea. The Ninglick steadily eats away at Newtok, some years carrying off as much as 100 feet of land. The process is sped up by climate change, meaning that the villagers will have no choice but to eventually leave.
The people of Newtok are not embracing their future as America´s first climate change refugees. The Yup´ik Eskimo have hunted and fished the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries, and they are rejecting the notion that they will be forced to run from their ancestral lands. However, exile is going to happen, whether they embrace it or not.
The Army Corps of Engineers issued a report that predicts the highest point in the village — the school, which is on stilts 20 feet tall — will possibly be underwater by 2017. They see no way to protect the village in place, not even with the seawalls and other protective measures already in place. There is one plan in place to relocate the villagers to a new location, but if they resist for too long, the village will disappear and it will be too late to relocate.
They are a community of 350 people who are nearly all related to some degree. This large family, which is connected to the land in an intimate way, will be scattered to the villages and towns of western Alaska, Anchorage and beyond if they do not embrace change now.
Newtok is not alone, unfortunately. According to a GAO report from 10 years ago, more than 180 native communities in Alaska, which are flooding and losing land because of the ice melt, are facing the same choices.
This week there is a gathering in Sweden of the Arctic Council, the group of countries that governs the polar regions. Despite the dangers, climate change refugees are not high on the agenda for the Arctic Council, and the Obama administration told reporters earlier this week that there would be no additional government funding for communities in trouble.
Approximately half of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coastline with those numbers projected to grow in the coming decades. Alaska is not the only region facing trouble from climate change, they are just the front line. The villagers of Newtok have been learning a hard lesson: recognizing the gravity of the threat and responding in time are two very different matters.
According to USA Today, a tribal administrator says that relocation has been a “major talking point” in the village for the last 30 years. They are probably discussing the $130 million dollar price tag to move the village nine miles away.