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7 September 2016

Shishmaref - The Alaskan Village That’s Relocating to Escape Climate Change

Life in villages which reside within, or even on the cusp of the Arctic Circle is fraught with all kind of challenges most of us may never experience – the long days, long nights, deep freezes, food shortages, limited or even impossible trade access and, of course, the heavy snows. There’s one particular problem many of them are now experiencing which will soon affect us all – the looming, pointed finger of climate change.

As is often the way, problems caused by the more fortunate, comfortable populations of the world are first felt by the less. It’s now virtually impossible to deny that the ice caps are melting, sea ice is reducing and it’s affecting more than polar bears.

Shishamaref is just south of the Arctic Circle, a tiny island with only 600 residents. Most of them live by the ancient Inuit standards which are commonplace that far north; they fish, they hunt, they gather lumber, and their continued existence heavily hinges on these things.

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Barrier islands like Shishamaref are always hard places to exist, and will always be blighted by floods and changing landscapes, but in recent years it’s gotten far, far worse. The gradual decrease in vitally important permafrost and increase in local sea levels has made flooding more severe and storms potentially devastating. With less fertile ground to take wood from, or hunt caribou in, the local way of life has been placed in peril.

Other villages around Alaska and Canada have experienced this in the past, and some have moved buildings further inland, but in this case a vote was cast to actually move Shishmaref to the mainland. There are already two construction sites being considered for this. Logistically, it would mean some of the buildings being packed down and rebuilt, but others being abandoned and replaced. In both cases, it’s no easy task.

They shouldn’t have to be doing this, the village has been an incorporated part of Alaska since 1969, and an Inuit settlement for far longer, there’s never been such a severe need for reconstruction, much less a full relocation, and it’s not the only Alaskan village that this is happening to. Erosion is one of the most damaging side-effects of climate change for populations like these, and there’s not enough money or time to effectively counteract them. Left unchecked, this could severely damage the entire Inuit culture, and render an entire band of northern territory utterly devoid of human life. 

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.