For an increasing number of communities around the country, sea level rise is not a problem for future generations. It is an immediate threat.
In some cases, the rapid rate at which the shoreline recedes makes relocation the only option.
The town of Shishmaref is one such example, having voted to relocate back in 2002. A small community of roughly 600 Alaska Native Inupiaq people, Shishmaref is located on a quarter mile wide barrier island at the edge of the Chukchi Sea. The town has an air-strip, a school, a general store, a post office, a landfill, and several rows of pre-fabricated houses. The rest is sand, and increasingly, surf.
The Inupiaq villagers and their ancestors have inhabited Shishmaref for centuries, subsisting off seals, walruses, and other wildlife. The hunter-gathering lifestyle they maintain is one of the cultural treasures that villagers fear may be lost if the community relocates.
Even so, the pounding surf is a pressing reminder that staying put is not a viable option.
Climate change in the Arctic has already led to permafrost thawing, increased coastal exposure due to melting sea ice, and sea level rise. These changes have pushed the shoreline up to nine feet closer to the town each year. Several houses have already toppled into the surf.
Following the 2002 referendum, in which the town voted 161 to 20 in favor of moving, Shishmaref pushed forward with plans for relocation. They identified suitable sites for a new village, lobbied Congress, and invited reporters from across the country and around the world to visit Shishmaref to share their story. But facing headwinds from a $179 million price tag for relocation, relocation efforts slowly began to flag. Today, the town remains where it has always stood, albeit now mere feet from the frigid ocean waves.
Shishmaref is not the only endangered community in the rapidly changing Arctic. According to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report, 31 communities in Northern Alaska face imminent threats from coastal inundation. Like Shishmaref, 12 have voted to relocate, but because of immense financial and political hurdles, none have done so.
Climate impacts are not just a problem for remote islands in the Arctic. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Coastal Vulnerability to Sea Level Rise assessment, 50 percent of the coastline of the continental United States is at high or very high risk to sea level rise impacts, including coastal erosion, loss of wetlands, and the inundation of coastal communities.
During the summer of 2016, Shishmaref held another referendum on whether or not to move. The results were closer this time, but the voices calling for relocation once again prevailed. Similar barriers remain, such as price, logistics, and emotional attachment to an ancestral land. But with a second chance at a new beginning, the time for action in Shishmaref is now.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.