The erosion of the shoreline of Alaska’s Sarichef Island from rising sea levels has prompted the residents of the island’s village of Shishmaref to decide to relocate, before their traditional island home is overcome by the sea.
Home to 650 Inupiat Inuit, Sarichef Island lies in the Chukchi Sea, just north of the Bering Strait, and like the rest of Alaska, is warming twice as fast as the contiguous states. Shishmaref is one of 31 Alaskan villages that are in danger from erosion and flooding, according to the US Government Accountability Office.
It is estimated that the relocation of Shishmaref could cost upwards of $180 million, but like many of the villages under threat, they may not qualify for the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, due to a lack of incorporation in their governing structures. The Department of the Interior has allocated $8 million for all communities that plan to relocate, although this is to be spread amongst the 12 villages that have already planned to move.
The residents of Shishmaref, as with other villages, are concerned over the potential impact the move may make on their traditional lifestyles. Regardless, the effect of rising ocean levels is dramatic, with the island having "lost about 100 feet" since 1997, according to resident Esau Sinnock: "In the past 15 years, we had to move 13 houses – including my dear grandma Edna’s house – from one end of the island to the other because of this loss of land. Within the next two decades, the whole island will erode away completely." The steady loss of surface ice has also already impacted the islander’s ability to hunt and fish, their primary source of food.
The United Nations Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration estimates that climate change could displace as many as 200 million people worldwide by the middle of the century, although the residents of regions as far apart as Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, and villages in the Solomon Islands, are already facing this stark reality.