As the permafrost melts in Alaska, over 180 indigenous communities are under threat due to erosion and flooding caused by climate change. One such village, Newtok, is estimated to be entirely below water level by 2017.
In recent years, Newtok has been losing an average of 83 feet of land to erosion per year as the nearby river expands. The worst part? Scientists have been observing this erosion for decades — since the 1990s — and nothing has been done.
Now the situation is growing increasingly dire. Some villagers are starting to report that nearby waterways are inching up against their homes. In a stunning interview with The Guardian, Newtok resident Sabrina Warner told of an autumn storm last year, saying she stayed up until 4am to see if waves from the river would swallow her house.
While the Alaskan government has promised to dedicate funds to help relocate affected communities, so far the amounts have been a mere fraction of the cost necessary to rebuild. In the case of Newtok, costs could run as high as $130 million, but so far the village has only been able to raise $12 million over the past four years.
Part of the problem? The crisis simply isn’t recognized by state government officials as a natural disaster — despite the fact that the ground beneath Newtok is literally crumbling away, and the buildings are sinking into the mud.
If the town were suddenly destroyed by a massive flood or a tornado, this funding would be available immediately. But because the shift is happening slowly, over a matter of years rather than days or months, the need is going unmet.
Human rights lawyers Robin Bronen summed up the issue in a recent interview with Grist:
“We weren’t thinking of climate change when federal disaster relief legislation was passed,” said Robin Bronen, a human rights lawyer in Anchorage who has made a dozen visits to Newtok. “Our legal system is not set up. The institutions that we have created to respond to disasters are not up to the task of responding to climate change.”
Even if Alaska starts using disaster relief funds to help relocate its homegrown climate refugees, the cost to move homes, businesses, and schools will be enormous — around $350,000 per villager. It may be impossible to raise the billions necessary to move all the affected villages.
In the case of Alaska’s native tribes, this threat to their communities only adds insult to injury. Originally nomadic people, they were forced by the Alaskan government to settle near waterways in the 1950s, many of them at sites miles away from their traditional hunting and camping grounds. So not only have their lost their traditional way of life and their lands, they also face the threat of losing the communities they’ve lived in all their lives as well.