The front line of climate change: Alaska village must relocate as Arctic sea ice thins

Climate change is forcing an isolated Alaskan village, roughly 80 miles above the Arctic Circle, to relocate.

The very existence of Kivalina, a town with about 400 residents on a tiny barrier island off Alaska's northwest coast, is under threat as Arctic sea ice continues to melt into the surrounding Chukchi Sea.

Now the whaling community needs to figure out where to move the town and how to pay for it, after several previous attempts failed. It’s a dilemma that could become more common as global warming continues, scientists warn.

Colleen Swan, who was born and raised in Kivalina, says residents realized they were in serious trouble during 2004’s fall storm surges, when the ice that had typically protected the island had not formed yet — leaving them vulnerable.

“We need to get off this island. We can’t stay here. It’s not an option anymore,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News.

A defensive wall has been erected, but that can only buy a bit more time. Swan says the threat of climate change extends far beyond Kivalina — and people should be prepared. 

“We’re not the only ones that this is happening to, and it’s coming to an area near you,” Swan said. “You should become familiar with the environment around you and be aware of the disaster response plans in your area.”

Christine Shearer, the program director for an energy research organization called CoalSwarm, says it could cost up to $100 million to move the village, according to federal government estimates.

“There are four villages that need to be relocated imminently,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News. “The problem will likely get worse and more communities will be affected.”

According to BBC News, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that Kivalina will be uninhabitable in 2025.

But Shearer, author of a book on the plight of Kivalina, says it’s a little strange to give a specific deadline, because tragedy can strike at any time.

“There could all of a sudden be a huge storm that causes a lot of damage or floods the village. The issue isn’t necessarily slow and steady erosion,” she said.

Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement, told Yahoo News that communities in Alaska are probably most affected, but other coastal areas are vulnerable to the rising sea levels.

“Most discussions of sea level rise talk in terms of inches over decades,” she told Yahoo News. “Probably more threatening are the long-term impacts of hurricanes and strong storms. Half of all Americans live within 50 miles of the coast, and losses are bound to increase as storms become more intense and less predictable.”

One need only think of the devastation along the Jersey shore or Breezy Point, Queens, N.Y., in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to understand what’s at stake.

Earlier this month, the New York City Panel on Climate Change released a report saying that the sea level could rise up to six feet around the city before the end of the century.

A viral GIF, created by cartographer Jeffrey Linn, took this point a step further, depicting what the Big Apple might look like 1,000 to 10,000 years from now.

Illustration of sea rise by Jeffrey Linn
Illustration of sea rise by Jeffrey Linn

“For all of these maps, I am not portraying any sea level higher than what is possible,” Linn explained on his website.

He based his illustrations on a U.S. Geological Survey estimate that sea levels will rise about 80 meters if the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets melt.

But that possibility is far off. The people of Kivalina and similar communities are dealing with the reality of climate change now.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the Arctic is warming two times faster than anywhere else on the planet.

“Arctic warming is setting off changes that affect people and the environment in this fragile region, and has broader effects beyond the Arctic on global security, trade and climate,” Craig McLean, acting assistant administrator for NOAA’s office of oceanic and atmospheric research, said at a press conference in December.

Shearer says that most government policies affecting the people of Kivalina are related to disaster management — in other words, rebuilding in an existing location, not moving to a new one.

“Something needs to change. The way things are right now, there’s not really the policy framework in place to make that happen,” she said. “I think that’s why they feel that their [most effective] option is to bring attention to their issue.”

Awareness rose last week when Sally Jewell became the first secretary of the interior to visit Kivalina. She listened to the fears of its people, who are descendants of the Inupiat tribe.

"You can see the impact of coastal erosion in the village," she said. "You can hear the fear in people's voices about what's happening with climate change. Things are changing up here, and that's part of what I'm on this trip to learn about."

At a community meeting in a school gym on the mainland, Jewell vowed to share locals' concerns with Washington and to work toward a long-term solution, the Alaska Dispatch News reported.

“I don’t know what the state’s responsibility is, what the federal government’s responsibility is,” she told the crowd. “I understand the needs you have here, and that’s part of what we have to figure out.”

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