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Alaska, a village will have to relocate due to climate change

The inhabitants of Shishmaref, a small village in the heart of Alaska, have decided to relocate their town due to rising sea levels.

The coastline is rapidly disappearing and sea levels are gradually but relentlessly rising. Concerned with these phenomena and disappointed with climate change, residents in the village of Shishmaref, Alaska, have decided to move their entire community.

village Shishmaref coastal erosion
Sea erosion regains five metres of coast every year causing serious damage to coastal communities © GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Where the Iñupiat live

In this Inuit village, whose original name is Qigiqtaq, there’s one of the last communities of Iñupiat, an ancient people native to Alaska. From time immemorial the Iñupiat have been living in these inhospitable lands, covered with ice for most of the year, hunting caribou and bearded seals. However, due to global warming, their village could disappear forever.

The coastline is disappearing

Shishmaref is located on the island of Sarichef, about fifty kilometres above the Arctic Circle and only five metres above sea level. For this reason, rising sea levels are a real threat to this town. It is estimated that waves erode about six metres of coast every year, while rising temperatures cause the ice to melt more quickly.

Iñupiat community
Girls living in the Iñupiat community of Shishmaref, Alaska.

Referendum on the future of Shishmaref

The six hundred people living in Shishmaref have been asked to cast their ballot to decide the fate of their community. Most of the voters, 89, voted in favour of relocating the village in a safer area, while 78 people voted to remain in the current position.

Money is needed to relocate the village

Displacing the village and its inhabitants would take about 180 million dollars, according to a study conducted by the US Army Corps of Engineers, while remaining in the current location would take at least 110 million dollars needed for strengthening works (thirteen beach houses have already been relocated). US Interior secretary Sally Jewell announced that 8 million dollars will fund “projects that promote tribal climate change adaptation” in Alaska. But this sum is way too small compared to what the community needs to move.

Where can they go?

If the funds are collected and the relocation ends well, two potential areas have been identified where the new Shishmaref will rise: Old Pond and West Tin Creek Hills, two places that are not so far from the current village but are less threatened by coastal erosion.

villagei Shishmaref
Over the past 35 years, Shishmaref has lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet of land to coastal erosion.

A window to the future

Other villages will suffer the same fate as Shishmaref. According to research carried out by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), Shishmaref is one of the thirty-one countries to face “imminent threats” from flooding and coastal erosion. Another two hundred villages will face the same emergency in the future. On February 2016, Native Americans of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe living in the Island of Jean Charles, South Louisiana, were obliged to leave their land forever becoming the first climate refugees of the United States.

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