Abandoning Home of 400 Years Because of Climate Change

The Bering Sea continues to swallow the Alaskan Native village Shishmaref, and on August 16 residents voted to leave their 400-year-old home. The village has been losing up to 10 feet of shoreline a year, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Auburn University. Since 1969, 200 feet of shoreline has been eaten away, a state-funded study concluded. 

Shishmaref lies five miles off the coast, and global warming has thawed sea ice that once protected the island from storm surges. Its permafrost, the layer of permanently frozen soil on which it is built, is melting as well, as noted by Sebastien Malo in a story by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Unfortunately, Shishmaref is not the only Alaskan community in harm’s way. The Arctic Institute found that 31 villages face “imminent threat of destruction” from erosion and flooding.

Newtok, a community in Southwest Alaska, has been eroding into the Ningliq River for decades and is moving to a site 12 miles away with the help of funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD’s Lee Jones told Alaska Public Media that as climate change continues to threaten coastal communities, more groups are looking to the village as a model for relocation. “Even though the whole world may never have heard of Newtok, in some sense, the whole world is watching,” Jones said in May.

Worldwide, an estimated 50 million to 200 million people will be forced to relocate by 2050 due to climate change, many likely without the benefit of government aid. The figures come from the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration. Some of the world’s most vulnerable people are likely to suffer the consequences of rising sea levels, droughts, flooding, and reduced access to fresh water. 

A 2004 Army Corps of Engineers study put the cost of relocating to the mainland at $180 million. Staying in place would cost $110 million. Shishmaref Mayor Howard Weyiouanna Sr. told The Associated Press last month that some sort of solution must be found. “Doing nothing is not an option,” he said.

How much will it cost to relocate climate refugees? And what will the tab be for action to protect cities and towns that will not or cannot move? By 2070, the city of Miami could lose $3.5 trillion in financial assets from increased coastal flooding, according to a National Wildlife Federation report that summarized how both wildlife and local economies in each of the 15 coastal states from Maine to Florida will be affected by rising seas. The findings were in an August 17 story by E&E’s Niina Heikkinen.

So next time you hear a politician insist that our economy would be hurt by putting a price on carbon or acceleration of the conversion to clean energy, urge him to weigh those short-term and modest costs against what we’ll end up paying if we don’t take steps--and quickly--to curb carbon emissions.