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Threatened By Rising Seas, Alaska Village Decides To Relocate

An abandoned house at the west end of Shishmaref, Alaska, sits on the beach after sliding off during a fall storm in 2005.
Diana Haecker
An abandoned house at the west end of Shishmaref, Alaska, sits on the beach after sliding off during a fall storm in 2005.

Rising sea levels have eroded an Inupiat Eskimo village for decades. Now, residents of Shishmaref, Alaska, have officially voted to relocate.

The island community, located near the Bering Strait, opted to move rather than remain in place with added safety measures to protect against the rising waters. The city clerk's office told NPR that 94 votes favored relocating and 78 votes wanted to protect in place.

Now, according to the clerk's office, the city council will meet to discuss the options for where to relocate. A recent feasibility study assessed four possible sites, and the clerk says those options have been narrowed down to two.

Esau Sinnok, an Arctic Youth ambassador from Shishmaref, wrote in a recent blog post that the community has "lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet of land to coastal erosion" over the past 35 years. He said his family has moved 13 houses in 15 years, "from one end of the island to the other because of this loss of land."

On All Things Considered, Sinnok explained that he supports relocating the village "so we'll have a community called Shishmaref for future generations." Here's more:

"Shishmaref will be underwater within the next three decades, and if we do not do anything, we'll be forced to move to another city like Nome or Kotzebue or Fairbanks or Anchorage, and not many people will move to the same place. So that means our unique community of Shishmaref will soon die out because we have our unique dialect of Inupiat Eskimo language, our unique Eskimo dancing, our unique gospel singing translated in Inupiat. All that will soon die out if we do not move as a community."

It's a community that relies on hunting and fishing, he said. "A majority of our diet comes from the land and the sea. We hunt for caribou, moose, musk ox, bearded seal, walrus and gather traditional berries like the cloud berry, blueberries, blackberries."

Tribal coordinator Jane Stevenson recently told The Associated Press that "she is leaning toward remaining at the current site because it's closer to subsistence foods such as fish seal and walrus that people rely on for much of their diet."

Sinnok said that some of those who want to stay belong to an older generation, who say "they want to stay in place because they've lived there all their lives and that's where their parents and grandparents grew up too."

The town's mayor, Howard Weyiouanna, also argued that staying at the current location would be the most cost-effective, according to the AP. As the wire service reported, "either scenario selected in the Aug. 16 vote would cost millions — money the community of nearly 600 doesn't have."

Shishmaref is one of at least 31 Alaska Native villages where erosion due to climate change poses an imminent threat, according to a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office. Twelve of those villages were exploring relocation options.

According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, "scientists attribute coastal erosion in Shishmaref to global warming that has thawed sea ice that once shielded the island from storm surges." It added that the village's "permafrost, the layer of permanently frozen soil on which it is built, is melting as well."

This is not the first time the community has voted on whether to relocate — Shishmaref voters decided to relocate in a 2002 poll, but that never happened owing to lack of resources. But Sinnock told NPR that he thinks such a decision would be handled differently now:

"I think that we learned a lot more than we did 14 years ago. I think the momentum we have now will lead to finding the available resources, and I really hope that this story, our story, goes out to the federal government, like to President Barack Obama, so that they can really know what effects of climate change are in Alaska."

He added: "It's crazy to know that your only home will soon be underwater if the federal government doesn't do anything to help you out."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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