The Alaskan village of Shishmaref has voted to relocate because global warming puts its residents at risk of being washed away — or at least that’s the simplified narrative environmentalists and the media peddle.
Shishmaref, a small town of nearly 600 people just north of the Bering Strait, has become a poster child for global warming. It’s threatened by erosion and storm surge due to shrinking Arctic sea ice, and on Tuesday, its residents voted to relocate — they just don’t know where they’re going or how they’ll pay for it.
Shishmaref’s story, however, is much more complicated than news headlines suggest. A look back at the settlement’s history shows life there has always been precarious and always been at the mercy of nature.
A Precarious Existence
“Within the next two decades, the whole island will erode away completely,” Esau Sinnok, a Shishmaref native and environmentalist, wrote to the U.S. Interior Department in 2015.
“To put this in perspective: I was born in 1997, and since then, Shishmaref has lost about 100 feet,” he wrote in his highly publicized essay. “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.”
Sinnok’s essay is emblematic of how many understand the situation for Native American coastal villages across Alaska. The spectre of global warming is seen from Shishmaref to Newtok to Kivalina, and even the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.
Read the news and you’ll hear the story of a people being forced out of their homes by erosion after 400 years. But that’s not the whole truth.
Take Shishmaref. People have been there for about 400 years, but only on a seasonal basis. Native Alaskans would traverse the the region looking for the best places to find food, and for part of the year, Sarichef Island had what people needed.
Oregon State University anthropologist Elizabeth Marino is one of the few scholars to really dig into Shishmaref’s history and why the settlement is located where it is today. Marino notes how Shishmaref didn’t become a permanent settlement until the 20th century after the “U.S. government pursued a deliberate policy of ending all nomadic lifestyles among Native Americans,” according to a review of her book by Alaska Dispatch News (ADN).
“The people of Shishmaref weren’t forcibly collectivized in the way that Natives were elsewhere in the country in the 19th century, but the government’s opening of a school in Shishmaref, coupled with the onset of compulsory education, had the same effect,” ADN wrote of Marino’s book.
In fact, Shishmaref isn’t even a native Alaskan name. The settlement is named after a Russian explorer who traversed the Alaskan coast in 1821.
At first, settling on Shishmaref made sense, but it was “always tenuous ground to build on,” ADN reported. Natives cobbled together homes on Sarichef Island out of whatever they could, so their kids could go to school.
But they built on permafrost, and that’s a risky bet without modern techniques and equipment to keep the sensitive frost from melting. Human settlement and rising temperatures melted the permafrost Shishmaref’s homes were built on, meaning basically sand was exposed and was washed away by storm surge. Combine that with shrinking Arctic sea ice levels, and you’ve got a big problem.
“They didn’t think about infrastructure or any of that because there was no such thing,” Dan Kish, the senior vice president for policy of the free market Institute for Energy Research, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“It wasn’t until the government came along and started handing out checks and delivering things that you needed to settle down so you could get it,” said Kish, who spent years traveling Alaska while working for the House committee overseeing U.S. natural resources.
But don’t think it’s just recent temperature rise that’s harmed Shismaref. Storm surge and erosion has been a problem for decades before scientists and activist began worrying about global warming.
Shishmaref is part of a chain of barrier islands — sand islands that are formed by storm surges and separated from the mainland by shallow bays. The Shishmaref barrier islands likely formed about 1,700 years ago, during a period of increased storminess, according to a 1999 study.
Storminess subsided after that until about 1,200 years ago, when they began to get fiercer again. The study suggests the Bering Strait region sea level has risen nearly five feet over the last 5,000 years.
“They built in a bad place,” said Kish. Even Marino noted Shishmaref residents had discussed relocating to mainland Alaska as early as the 1970s. Sea levels and erosion have been impacting the island for thousands of years.
An Uncertain Future
The U.S. government basically forced Shishmaref into existence and now the village is trying to get the feds to pay for their removal.
Shishmaref is at a breaking point. The town voted Tuesday to relocate, but the Army Corps of Engineers estimated in 2004 the removal could cost $180 million — that’s $320,000 per resident.
Federal officials have already given the town $27 million between 2005 and 2009 to stem erosion. Those measures only bought the town 15 years, according to The New York Times.
Some aren’t convinced the relocation will happen — two previous efforts to relocate were defeated over worries about leaving the town’s school behind. Opponents of moving don’t like the potential relocation sites on the mainland because they lack barge access.
It’s also unclear how they’ll pay for it all. Shishmaref is poor and would need millions from taxpayers.
Supporters of moving are somewhat optimistic since the Obama administration natives on the Isla de Jean Charles $48 million in January to relocate.
“I’m going to have to wait to see how all of this shakes down,” a Shishmaref resident told NYT over the phone. “There’s a number of questions to be answered before we can make a very serious attempt at moving.”
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