Indigenous communities in coastal Alaska are facing the impacts of climate change as rising sea levels and changing weather patterns threaten to disrupt and destroy entire villages. If coordinated relocation efforts are not successful, residents risk losing their community and their traditional lifestyle.
Just three miles long and a quarter-mile wide, Shishmaref Island, located 600 miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska, is slowly sinking into the sea. Residents, mostly Alaska Native Inupiat people, voted in 2002 to move their small village off-island to avoid inevitable destruction due to the impacts of climate change. But funding has not been allocated, stalling the community relocation. Some residents—especially older generations—are choosing to remain on Shishmaref despite challenges such as a lack of running water, high unemployment, diminishing population, and loss of land and housing.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Alaska is warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the United States, causing a number of ecological impacts, including decreasing sea-ice, diminished fish stocks and game, rising sea levels, an increase of extreme storms, and the melting of permafrost (frozen ground typically located a few feet below soil surface). More than thirty Native Alaska villages are either in the process of relocating or in need of relocation due to issues related to climate change.*
Those who have already left Shishmaref Island belong to a growing number of "climate refugees," people forced to geographically relocate due to the impacts of climate change. In the United States, rising sea levels are forcing relocation in many states with low elevations, such as Louisiana, which loses approximately 65 square miles to the sea every year.** Other reasons for relocation, due to climate change, include extreme weather events, such as in New Orleans,*** which lost over half its population after flooding from Hurricane Katrina, or in Syria where a four-year drought caused the internal displacement of more than 2 million people intensifying the social and political discord that led up to a civil war.****
"Waiting To Move," a photo essay by Ciril Jazbec, documents the community and traditions of Shishmaref Island. Jazbec's photographs capture the daily activities of island residents, including subsistence activities that have taken place for centuries, as well as some of the physical destruction being wrought by climate change.
Connections to National Standards
Common Core English Language Arts. SL.11-12.1.c. Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that probe reasoning and evidence; ensure a hearing for a full range of positions on a topic or issue; clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions; and promote divergent and creative perspectives.
College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies. D2.Geo.9.9-12. Evaluate the influence of long-term climate variability on human migration and settlement patterns, resource use, and land uses at local-to-global scales.
Next Generation Science Standards. HS-ESS2-2. Analyze geoscience data to make the claim that one change to Earth's surface can create feedbacks that cause changes to other Earth systems.