When President Barack Obama visited the tiny northern Alaskan coastal village of Kotzebue in 2015, it brought international attention to the fact that this Native community was directly threatened by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
The ground around the village is being eroded by intensifying storms, melting ice and rising sea levels. “What’s happening here is America’s wake-up call,” Obama said during his visit. “It should be the world’s wake-up call.”
Twelve years prior to that, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) had released a report explaining that 6,600 miles of Alaska’s coastline were already subject to severe flooding and erosion, with 86 percent of Alaska Native villages already being impacted by flooding and erosion at that time.
“Of the nine villages we were directed to review, four — Kivalina, Koyukuk, Newtok and Shishmaref — are in imminent danger from flooding and erosion and are planning to relocate,” stated the GAO report from 2003. “While the remaining five are in various stages of responding to these problems.”
Now, 12 years later, the problem has grown worse, and the attention and funding necessary to move villages away from the coast has grown all the more urgent.
A Growing Number
The tiny village of Kivalina, located on a thin barrier island in the Chuckchi Sea and located 83 miles north of the Arctic Circle is populated by 400 Iñupiat. It has garnered, perhaps, more media attention than any other Alaskan village on the front lines of ACD, as exampled by a Washington Post article from 2015, among numerous others.
In 2008 the village sued 24 fossil fuel companies for the destruction of its homeland, but lost the case in federal court and has opted, thus far, not to re-file the case in state court. Meanwhile, the village people are well aware that they have less than a decade left before they must relocate, becoming the latest of the US’s first wave of climate refugees.
In 2003, the US Army Corps of Engineers identified 12 communities where partial or complete relocation should be considered, and estimated costs for doing so that would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars for each individual village.
Other villages that are facing the reality of relocation include Shaktoolik, where, for now, the locals are trying to stay put while aiming to protect themselves from floods and storms with coastal barriers; and Newtok, where the ACD-caused disintegration has been extensively documented (see images of the impacts here). There’s also Sarichef Island, a four-mile stretch of land off the Alaskan coast, which contains Shishmaref, a village that already voted to relocate its ancestral home to safer ground — but has not yet managed to do so due to lack of funding and the absence of a replacement location. These are just a few of the many communities currently considering relocation.
A recent study coined the term “climigration” to identify the phenomenon facing these Alaskan villages. In particular, the Alaskan regions of the North Slope, the Northwestern Arctic and the Bering Strait have all received media attention due to the obvious ACD impacts that are causing villages in those regions to start looking seriously at relocating.
Yet it’s not just the far north that’s impacted: The Yukon/Kuskokwim Delta, a vast lowland area of southwestern Alaska that encompasses 75,000 square miles and contains just over 24,000 people, is becoming increasingly vulnerable to flooding due to sea level rise, erosion, flooding from rivers and storms. It, too, is on the proverbial chopping block as ACD impacts continue to increase and “climigration” likely becomes commonplace across that region as well. Of course, in the coming years and decades, “climigration” will become a reality for an increasing number of us — even those who do not live in the far north.