There goes my town
28 February 2019
We’ve long known that infrastructure built on permafrost would struggle when the effects of climate change finally became impossible to ignore. Most northern countries have anticipated damage to roads, homes, buildings and even bridges and airport runways as the land beneath them thaws, softens and erodes. But understanding that something may one day happen and facing the relocation of your entire community are two different things.
ESAU SINNOK grew up in Shishmaref, an Alaskan village on a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea that is home to about 600 people, mostly Iñupiat. Over the course of his childhood, he watched the island lose about 100 feet along its coast. By the time he became an Arctic Youth Ambassador in 2015, he anticipated that by 2040, the entire island would erode away.
“Without sea ice, which acts as a buffer for the island, the land is lost due to storm surges. This is becoming more common and more dangerous in recent years,” says Sinnok, now 21. “The ice also hasn't been freezing like it used to. I remember a few years back, it didn’t freeze until the end of January. And temperatures were above 20°C, which is super unusual. Every year, it is harder to traditionally hunt and fish to provide for our family and community because of climate change.”
There is no question that climate change is wreaking havoc on Shishmaref and other towns like it in several ways. For one thing, structures built on thawing permafrost are at risk of collapsing. Some residents’ livelihoods are also under threat as climate change alters the presence and patterns of the animals they rely on.
According to a report on Alaska’s native villages by the US Government Accountability Office, among some 200 villages affected to various degrees by flooding and erosion, at least 31 face “imminent” threats and may need to be relocated. A handful, including Shishmaref, will likely need to be moved completely as rising temperatures continue to cause coastline erosion, flooding and destabilization of structures. In fact, in 2016, Shishmaref voted 89 to 78 to relocate to the mainland.
But it’s been estimated that it would cost USD$180 million to relocate the town, and it’s not clear who will pay. With the US government continuing to drag its heels, Shishmaref is still in its original location, which continues to shrink every year.
“It really hurts knowing that your only home is going to be gone, and you won't hunt, fish and carry on traditions the way that your people have done for centuries,” said Sinnok. “It is more than a loss of place, it is a loss of identity.”
What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on Earth, and the world is already feeling the effects.
No one knows for sure what the impact of thawing permafrost will be, but many experts predict a tipping point.