As erosion and rising seas destroy their land, residents of Newtok, Alaska, are hopeful that their community can be saved before the threats of climate change engulf their village.
About 500 miles west of Anchorage, the Yup’ik Eskimo community has begun the elaborate process of relocating their village nine miles away from its current location. The community has become a news centerpiece in recent years, commonly being referred to as “the sinking village.” The devastating effects of the world’s changing climate are predominately evident in Newtok, and it is being considered as a possible national model for moving entire communities that are facing the effects of climate change.
The State of Alaska is currently seeking a portion of a nearly $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) grant which helps to move and assist threatened villages and adapt to the threats posed by climate change. In the NDRC proposal released Friday, Alaska State officials are proposing $62.6 million of the NDRC grant money be used for relocating 62 families from Newtok to new homes in a town called Mertarvik. They are also seeking funding $162.4 million in relief for for three other vulnerable areas — Emmonak, Galena and Teller. Newtok is the only community that has begun a physical move thus far.
A 2011 state report quoted a Traditional Council member saying, “This will be our final move. Mertarvik is going to be a lifetime permanent location, higher ground with rock underneath.”
Though Newtok is the furthest along in the relocation process compared to other communities planning to follow their steps, it is still might not be far enough. Even the highest point in the village — a school that sits perched atop 20-foot pilings — could be underwater by 2017. It has been estimated that homes may not be able to move to the new location until 2018 or possibly later given the number of bureaucratic and economic setbacks.
It has been almost a decade since Newtok’s residents voted to relocate their villages to higher bedrock. Since then, the community has faced a number of obstacles, including internal political conflicts that have severely delayed the relocation process. The Newtok Village Council, formerly known as Newtok Traditional Council, went through a reformation process with the assistance of the Interior Board of Indian Appeals which began in 2012. The appeals board ruled to uphold the residents’ request for new leadership and the reformed council was finalized this past August. Last month Romy Cadiente, the Village Council’s tribal coordinator, told Alaska Public Media that they are currently re-establishing connections with state and federal agencies that were lost during that process.
Sitting on a permafrost, which has been rapidly melting due to rising temperatures, Newtok residents reported that 50 to 75 feet of land each year are being washed away. The village is also encircled by The Ninglick river, which has essentially been eating the land out from under the village. Alaska is warming at a rate two to three times faster than the rest of the United States and the average winter temperature has risen 6.3 degrees over the past 50 years, leaving very little time to spare.
The Government Accountability Office estimated that 31 villages in Alaska are in imminent danger from erosion and rising sea level caused by climate change. During Obama’s landmark visit to Alaska last month — making him the first U.S. President to travel above of the Arctic Circle — he traveled to two other communities both facing major threats from climate change, Kotzebue and Kivalian.
The national resilience competition will not be easy, with other devastated areas such as Hurricane Sandy victims and New Orleans also vying for relief. Funds will be granted to the most impacted, distressed, and needy eligible communities. Alaska is one of 40 finalists for the grant money. The public is invited to participate in the development for the second phase of the NDRC application for the state until October 17, with final submissions for competition due October 27. The village is also trying to obtain funding through the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Mertarvik, the new location for Newtok, currently has six houses built. Further plans include two intersecting airport runways, a wind farm, a water plant, a small boat harbor and a community garden.
This is not the first time a community has been displaced due to the impacts of climate change. Last year a small town on Taro Island, the capital of Choiseul Province in the Solomon Islands, became the first town in the Pacific Islands to plan to relocate their entire population of about 1,000 residents. Other island communities, such as Kiribati, one of the Pacific’s lowest-lying island nations, have also acknowledged that the relocation of their people may be inevitable.