The Alaskan village of Shishmaref voted this week to surrender to global warming and move its ancestral home.
The Tuesday vote was close. Eight-nine people voted to move Shishmaref to the Alaska mainland while 78 voted to stay and fight the rising tide, said Donna Barr, secretary of the Shishmaref Council.
Nearly all the 169 registered voters showed up to the village meeting to vote, she said. The vote was important, perhaps more in symbolism than substance, because while the move isn’t imminent, when it happens, both the financial and emotional cost will be great.
Their people have been there a long time. And leaving means giving up a way of life.
“Our community on this island has seen artifacts about 500 years old,” Barr said.
Now they have to decide how to pay for the escape. It is a buck they plan to pass.
“About 15 years ago, they estimated the cost at $180 million, but I would figure it’s much higher now,” Barr said. “We don’t see the move happening in our lifetime because of the funding.”
In the end, all that might leave is the people.
The isolated village — accessible by airplane, boat and snowmobile when the ice is thick enough — sits on Sarichef Island in the Chukchi Sea. It’s just north of the Bering Strait, 123 miles north of Nome, which is pretty close to the Arctic Circle
The village works a bit like a mine’s canary regarding global warming. Villagers can see it getting sicker as the planet heats up. CNN has made trips there to document the changing weather conditions.
“The land is going away,” Shelton Kokeok, then 65, told CNN in 2009. “I think it’s going to vanish one of these days.”
For decades, its approximately 650 villagers, largely members of the Inupiat tribe of the Inuit, have been watching warming temperatures melt the sea ice and the permafrost, resulting in more coastal erosion as the sea waters eat up the barrier island.
Houses have tumbled into the water and others have had to be moved to stable land.
There are at least 31 Alaskan villages facing similar threats, according to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And while a dozen of them are considering relocating, the report says that many or most may not be eligible for federal funding.
The villagers have struggled with the warming temperatures for years. Esau Sinnok, a Shishmaref native and Arctic youth ambassador in a program started by the Interior and State departments, wrote an essay in which he lamented that the tiny island had lost nearly 3,000 feet of land to coastal erosion since 1980. The poor village of mostly manufactured houses has been struggling with the idea of moving itself to the mainland at least since 2000, he said. But the financial cost and the emotional toll of leaving has always been too great for many of the residents.
“The problem we’ve been facing for the last 40 years is there is no money from the federal or state government,” Barr said.
But the global warming might mean they will have no choice. It also has been eroding their way of life in other ways. While a few decades ago, ice was fully formed by October, now it takes to December, and ice isn’t thick enough to cross it safely, Sinnok said.
Sarichef Island, about a quarter-mile wide in the center, sits between the Chukchi Sea and the wide estuary of the Serpentine River. That has been prime real estate for hunting and fishing, the main forms of survival and employment in Shishmaref.
In the winter, Shishmaref residents hack tiny cylinders of ice out of the estuary to fish for tomcod and smelt. In the summer, they harvest cloudberries and blueberries; caribou herds roam across the vast expanse of inland tundra.
“The lack of ice has affected our hunting, fishing and other traditions,” Sinnok wrote in his essay last December. “Every year it gets harder and harder to collect enough meat for the winter. Tomcod and whitefish are a large part of our winter diet, but since the ice forms later in the year, it’s more difficult for us to gather enough food.”