Flooding to force 340 from their homes

Climate change has come to Alaska, forcing an entire population of indigenous peoples to abandon the town they call home.
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Climate change has come to Alaska, forcing an entire population of indigenous peoples to abandon the town they call home.

Many of us think that climate change won’t really hit home until our kids are affected, hopefully decades after our own deaths.

Think again.

Climate change is very real and very current – just ask the 340 residents of Newtok, Alaska, who have been forced out of their homes by severe flooding. They have lived for years in this low-lying area, 500 miles west of Anchorage. As average yearly temperatures rise, coastal ice shelves melt as does the permafrost on which the town sits. The Ninglick River has overtaken the town as the ground level simultaneously sinks. There’s no way to reverse the situation; the Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the town has less than 10 years before it’s completely removed from the map.

The New York Times covered this issue back in 2007, showing that this isn’t a spur-of-the-moment problem, but one that slowly creeps up over time (and has generally been ignored by the mainstream media). They estimate that flooding currently endangers 180 small Alaskan villages, the relocating of which would cost millions for such a small number of citizens. The Army Corps estimates that moving the town of Newtok alone will cost between $250,000 and $500,000 per resident, mostly due to the remote location of the town.

But what is the price of human dignity? Should American taxpayers collectively contribute to the relocation of these remote villages because, inevitably, we’ve all contributed to climate change? Or is this just par for the course, with the people of Newtok becoming just another sad story of people being forced to move in our ever-changing world?

We tend to forget about these towns and the imminent issues of climate change in Alaska, maybe because they’re further away than New Orleans (which sustained unparalleled damage due to a combination of a devastatingly-strong storm and the failure of human engineering) or because not as many people are affected, (unlike the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands in 2005). The situation in Newtok deserves, at the very least, our attention, especially since those of us in the continental U.S. might be the next affected by climate change (or, maybe our children will be).

You can find more information about plans for a temporary shelter in Newtok, as well as for a permanent move to Mertarvik, here.

– Adrienne Saia Isaac

NY Times: Victim of Climate Change, a Town Seeks a Lifeline

CNN: 'Climate change' forces Eskimos to abandon village

Juneau Empire: Empire shelter designed for Newtok residents