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The four-mile long island of Shishmaref is losing shoreline at a rate of 10 to 30 feet per year prompting villagers' decision to relocate due to ice melt and accompanying flooding
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  • Ecologist contributor Dr Cara Augustenborg (centre) on a trip to Alaska in 2008

Shishmaref Climate Refugees Relocation - A sociological tipping point in Arctic Alaska

Dr Cara Augustenborg

23rd August, 2016

When the 600 residents of the Shishmaref Alaskan village decided last week to relocate due to the impact of Climate Change we moved beyond the 'wakeup call' stage to a serious tipping point, writes Dr CARA AUGUSTENBORG

What's happening in Alaska isn't just a preview of what's to come for to the rest of us if we don't take action. It's our wakeup call - President Obama

In an historic move last week, residents of Shishmaref, Alaska voted to relocate their coastal village due to erosion, which is expected to worsen as a result of climate change.

The four-mile long island is losing shoreline at a rate of 10 to 30 feet per year. To date, 19 homes and the National Guard Armory have moved as a result. With only 600 residents affected, their decision to relocate last week may not appear to be a logistical challenge but the cost of a full relocation of the entire village is estimated at 180 million U.S. dollars.

Shishmaref is not the first Alaskan village to make such a heart-breaking decision. In 1996, the 350 residents of Newtok decided to move to a piece of elevated land nine miles from their home based on projections their village could be completely submerged as early as 2017.

However, very little relocation has taken place - despite significant flood damage - in the interim.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires villages to pay up to half of the costs for new infrastructure - estimated at $130 million for Newtok, which makes the reality of relocation cost-prohibitive.  

In 2008, I visited Arctic Alaska as part of the Ben & Jerry's Climate Change College led by the late polar explorer, Marc Cornelissen. Sadly, I wasn't surprised to witness the retreating glaciers, thinning sea ice or hear about the plight of the polar bear.

In contrast, I was stunned to discover climate change was already affecting the unique culture of the Inupiat community living there, particularly as residents of Alaska (who receive oil royalties of approximately $2,000 per person annually through the Alaska Permanent Fund) and as citizens of the United States (a country that had refused to agree to global climate action at the time). This odd dichotomy of the Alaskan Inupiat community - as both victims of climate change and beneficiaries of the very things contributing to climate change - was palpable.   

Eight years ago, the scientists and explorers I met in the Arctic described the Inupiat culture as one that would ‘cease to exist' as a result of climate change. Since then, almost nothing has been done to prevent the extinction of a subsistence-based culture that has been in existence in Alaska since 1000 B.C. Finding appropriate relocation sites able to withstand the impacts of climate change within traditional Inupiat hunting grounds adds further to the challenge.

Newtok and Shishmaref are only the tip of the iceberg. Alaska is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the United States, and the impact of rapid warming on the permanently frozen land of these native villages is dramatic.

An assessment by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2003 reported 86 per cent of Alaska's 213 native villages had already experienced flooding and erosion from melting permafrost - with 31 villages described as being in ‘imminent danger' and 12 villages deciding to relocate by 2009.

Alaska's challenge is reflective of a wider global crisis as the number of people fleeing their homelands due to climate change continues to rise.

The world's first climate refugees came from the Carterets atoll. A relocation programme for the 1,700 residents living there started in 2009 yet to date, only enough money has been raised to move 103 people so far. Those who remain now face food shortages, resulting in the closure of the local school this year as children can no longer concentrate due to nutritional deficit.

This year, scientists confirmed five of the Pacific's 33 islands have disappeared due to sea level rise, and six others lost large swaths of land including the destruction of two entire villages.

Last week, Kiribati's weight lifter, David Katoatau, ended his failed Olympic bid by dancing in a desperate effort to help raise awareness about his sinking country. His efforts were subsequently described by Atlantic Monthly as ‘the saddest Olympic celebration' seen at the Rio games.

In Bangladesh, almost five million people have left their rural homes to live as "pavement dwellers" in Dhaka due to flooding, storms and a dramatic decline in agricultural productivity. That number is growing at a rate of half a million people per year, which means Dhaka will soon become the largest megacity in the world.

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that since 2008 an average of 22.5 million people per year have been displaced by climate- or weather-related disasters worldwide - with as many as 200 million people predicted to relocate by 2050 according to the Stern report.

When President Obama visited Alaska in 2015 he said "What's happening in Alaska isn't just a preview of what's to come for to the rest of us if we don't take action. It's our wakeup call."

This week, as my own home state of Louisiana experiences its eighth 500-year flood event in the past 12 months, it seems to me there were plenty of wakeup calls years ago - only we never answered the phone.

What's happening in Alaska and throughout the world now has gone beyond a preview or a warning. The decision by the residents of Shishmaref may be the sociological tipping point that will see climate relocation become dramatically more common in years to come.

The big question now is how will those of us in less vulnerable regions around the world cope with an influx of climate refugees and who will pay? 

This Author:

Dr Cara Augustenborg is an Irish-American environmental scientist and climate communicator living in Ireland and one of our New Voices contributors. She lectures in climate change at University College Dublin and blogs as ‘The Verdant Yank' on CaraAugustenborg.com.

Follow her on Twitter @CAugustenborg or Facebook at www.facebook.com/CaraAugustenborgGreen.

 

 

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