Climate Changes Spur Plan for Alaska Village Move
ANCHORAGE With sea ice shrinking, permafrost thawing and sea storms becoming more frequent, residents of a remote Eskimo village in Alaska are preparing to move their entire community to more solid ground within four years, officials said Wednesday.
Located on a narrow Chukchi Sea barrier island, the Inupiat village of Shishmaref has lost so much ground in recent years that it has become an internationally famous case study into the effects of global warming. It is likely to become the first U.S. community to move because of a warming climate, many scientists have said.
"The situation facing Shishmaref needs to be categorized as an emergency," Luci Eningowuk, head of the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Council, told the Coastal Engineering Research Board, an U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advisory panel.
Erosion at Shishmaref, an Inupiat island village of 600, is so dramatic that residents plan to start moving to a new site about 13.5 miles inland by 2009.
A quicker move may be necessary if big storms arrive, Eningowuk said. She asked for help in securing federal funding for possible temporary village quarters if an emergency move is needed to the selected mainland site, called Tin Creek.
From 2001 to 2003, bluff erosion at Shishmaref has proceeded at a rate of 13 feet to 22.6 feet per year, said Alan Jeffries, a civil engineer with the Corps' Alaska district. That compares to an annual estimated rate of erosion of three to nine feet over the past two decades.
The loss of sea ice, the thawing earth and the growing incidence of powerful sea storms have made the island's fine sand vulnerable, Jeffries said. "There's nothing to hold it in," he said.
The cost of moving Shishmaref is currently estimated at $150 million to $180 million, said Bruce Sexauer, a senior planner for the Corps' Alaska district.
Consolidation into a larger community is unacceptable and "would have a devastating impact on how we exist and who we are," Eningowuk said.
The village has its own distinct culture, including a reputation for finely crafted Inupiat arts and sled-dog racing, and it has maintained its food-gathering traditions.
In all, 184 Alaska villages are in serious danger of erosion or flooding, according to a government report issued last year. Four, including Shishmaref and Newtok, already have relocation plans, according to the report.
Although the case of Shishmaref is probably the most severe in Alaska, residents of Newtok, a Yupik Eskimo village of 300, are also planning a similar move.
"The springtime is getting earlier each year. In the fall time, it's not as snowy as it used to be," said Stanley Tom, a liaison for the Newtok tribal council.
Buildings are starting to slump in the thawing permafrost, and water levels are rising, Tom said, "Now the villagers are saying, `Let's move to the solid land."'