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Shishmaref, Alaska: a Village Looking for a Home

 

There are 563 people in Shishmaref, Alaska, just 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The 3-mile long island the village sits on is eroding as increasing numbers of storms are collapsing the northern beach. Fourteen houses were moved in 1997, and others have collapsed with the shoreline since then. Elders remember using wide beaches for a playground; those beaches are no longer there.

The island has dealt with erosion issues since at least the 1950s. But now climate change is exacerbating the problem considerably. Average temperatures are increasing faster in Alaska than they are in the rest of the United States, warming 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years. The higher temperatures are causing the subsurface layer of permanently frozen soil typically found in the Arctic to thaw in some areas. This weaker permafrost is more vulnerable to storms and tidal activity, fueling the loss of Shishmaref's shores.

Warmer temperatures have also shortened the amount of time the Chukchi Sea stays frozen each year, leaving the coastline exposed to fall and early winter storms. Now, during storms, the sand will "just melt with the water," said Luci Eningowuk, 65. From 2004 to 2008 Eningowuk served as chair of the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition, the group charged with developing and executing a plan for moving the town. "The waves would come and take a whole lot of the land."

The residents voted in 2002 to relocate the village, but that hasn’t happened. It costs money to find a proper location, build infrastructure, and move the population. Government funding is hard to get -and hard to keep, especially since Shishmaref is far from the only community in danger along the Alaskan coastline. And after twelve years, the village needs repairs, but is it worth it when it will have to move sooner or later? Proponents of moving say it’s better to go now, in order to secure a location and keep the community intact. Otherwise, when the island is destroyed, the residents will become scattered refugees. Read about the island village of Shishmaref and its uncertain future at HuffPo. -via Digg


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