Despite the assumption by many individuals that the detrimental effects of global warming are theoretical events that are far into the future, there are communities in the United States that are already faced with the reality of relocating due to sea level rise caused by global warming. While numerous communities around the world are already planning to relocate due to the loss, or imminent loss of land to the ocean, two such communities in the U.S. have already received funding to migrate to more stable land, in what may be a harbinger for larger coastal populations in the near future.
Residing at opposite corners of the country, the Alaskan village of Newtok and Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles have received funding from the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC), a funding program administered by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), aimed at helping communities that have been, or will be, impacted by disasters. While President Trump’s proposed budget cuts don’t appear to have affected the NDRC program itself, the 2018 budget calls for a 13 percent ($6.2 billion) reduction in funding for HUD overall.
Newtok is a Yup’ik native village that is situated at the mouth of the Ningliq River on Alaska’s west coast. The village has been faced with the encroachment of the steadily-eroding shoreline for decades, but the process has now accelerated because of the increase in permafrost melt. While the decision to relocate was made in 1996, with a suitable site having been chosen by 2003, doing so proved to be impossible without the proper funding, funding that took nearly twenty years to materialize, under the NDRC, created in 2015 by then-President Obama. The surrounding geology has deteriorated to the point that by 2007, the land that Newtok resides on became an island, due to the opening of a slough to the north of the village.
"They see the river bearing down on them. They all accept it, they all know they have to leave," explains Joel Neimeyer, co-chair of the Denali Commission, a federal agency tasked with coordinating government assistance in addressing coastal issues in Alaska. "The river is coming at 70 feet a year. You can just take out a tape measure and measure it."
At the southern end of the country, the community of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians are also faced with having to relocate from their long-standing home on a narrow stretch of land on Louisiana’s south coast. In the mid-twentieth century, the area consisted of 22,000 acres of land, but today 98 percent of that area has been lost due to encroachment by the sea and erosion. Initially reluctant to leave their home, the community also qualified for funding under NDRC.
While the combined cost of relocating these two communities amounted to only $117 million, their relatively small populations — 354 in Newtok and 25 families in Isle de Jean Charles — are extremely small compared to the potential impact, and the enormous cost in resources, that sea level rise could have on coastal populations around the world: one study’s conservative estimate of a three-foot sea level rise by 2100 would displace over four million people in the U.S. alone, with possibly 13.1 million having to migrate if levels wind up rising twice that much.