Natives were forced to settle in unstable mud flats in the 1950s, are now paying the price

Yup'ik Inuits who inhabit villages 400 miles south of the Bering Strait today live much as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago, fishing and hunting for game, albeit with some new modern conveniences.  But that way of life is being threatened by a changing landscape.

I. Erosion Issues Hit Inuit Town Hard

Heavy flow from the Ninglick River, which wraps around the Yup'ik village of Newtok on three sides, has been removing 83 feet (~25 m) of land per year [source], a process climatologists blame on climate change. The village, which is home to 350 people and 63 homes, today is at a crossroads.

The US Army Corps of Engineers said in a 2009 report [PDF] that the end of Newtok is inevitable; they say that the highest point in the town (the local schoolhouse, which stands on 20-foot pilings) will be underwater by 2017 and that there's nothing that can be done.

Newtok, AK
Newtok, Alaska [Google Maps]

There has been some confusion about the fate of Newtok when this happens.  For example the Guardian, a top UK paper, reports:

If Newtok can not move its people to the new site in time, the village will disappear. A community of 350 people, nearly all related to some degree and all intimately connected to the land, will cease to exist, its inhabitants scattered to the villages and towns of western Alaska, Anchorage and beyond.

The comment glosses over the fact that there are active plans by the villagers to relocate the village; hence the story's title -- "America's First Climate Refugees" -- while not that much worse than other titles on the topic, is decidedly alarmist.

Other nations bordering the Arctic are having fewer issues; at today's meeting of Arctic-bordering nations in Sweden (The Arctic Council), climate change is not expected to be a top topic of discussion.

II. A Big Mess Caused by Big Government

Still some of Alaska's more than 180 native communities may face tough decisions as the local permafrost melts.  While historically climate change has been a reality of planet Earth since the time of the dinosaurs, many villages may face tough decisions adapting to this reality of Mother Earth.

The melting is changing hunting conditions, and in villages like Newtok, is worsening erosion problems.

One problem facing the villagers is lack of transportation.  For Newtok -- 480 miles west of Anchorage -- moving or leaving the village is not as simple as jumping in the SUV and rumbling out of town.  There are no roads going into Newtok; the closest doctor, road, or gas station is 100 miles away.  The closest transportation of any kind is the small planes that fly into and out of Bethel, roughly a 60-mile hike away.

Newtok village
The only way into or out of Newtok is by snowmobile or by foot. [Image Source: Guardian]

One thing the Guardian's piece does get right is that American federal government's interference with tribal life has created this mess.

The term "climate refugees" is somewhat ironic, given that the Yup'ik were nomadic by nature, migrating over the permafrost.  In the 1950s the U.S. government told the Yup'ik that their nomadic lifestyle was no longer acceptable, they had to settle in one location so their children could go to school.  The Yup'ik begrudgingly accepted, settling in Kayalavik, a village of sod huts, farther north.

But when Alaska became a state in 1959, federal officials began to pressure the Yup'ik to relocate, as the Kayalavik village was harder for supply barges to access.  Eventually the ill-fated decision was made to relocate the tribe to Newtok -- a seasonal stopping place for the tribe's late-summer berry picking.

Larry Hartig, a state government official heading The Alaskan Commission on Environmental Conservation, comments, "The places are often where they are because it was easy to unload the building materials and build the school and the post office there.  But they weren't the ideal place to be in terms of long-term stability and it's now creating a lot of problems that are exacerbated by melting permafrost and less of the seasonal sea ice that would form barriers between the winter storms and uplands."

III. Government Moves Sluggishly To Fix the Mess it Made

The issues with the mud flats site did not begin to pop up until the 1990s when erosion began to intensify.

Now the government faces the sticker shock of the cost to move the village to the site proposed in a 2007 resolution -- Newton Island, a stable volcanic island across the river.  The cost of the move is estimated at $130M USD and thus far state and federal officials are hesitant to pony up that much money, despite creating the problem in the first place.  Still they have provided funds for initial construction, which should be enough to enact some necessary structures; workers could begin building this year.

Climate change in Alaska is somewhat of a regional phenomena; the area is warming twice as fast as the rest of the U.S.  There's a good deal of stress on the local ecosystem, but wildlife are adapting -- moose are migrating into caribou country; grizzly bears are mating with polar bears as their ranges overlap.  But humans are finding it harder to adapt.

Comments Nathan Tom, a Yup'ik villager, "The snow comes in a different timing now. The snow disappears way late. That is making the geese come at the wrong time. Now they are starting to lay their eggs when there is still snow and ice and we can't go and pick them.  It's changing a lot. It's real, global warming, it's real."

Newtok village
Newtok villagers like Sabrina Warner struggle to stay optimistic amid the midst the government has created. [Image Source: Guardian]

His partner (wife) Sabrina Warner had a Yup'ik mother and relocated from Anchorage to be with Tom in 2011.  She recalls, "It's scary thinking about summer coming.  I don't know how much more is going to erode – hopefully not as much as last year.  When I first got here the land used to be way out there.  Now that doesn't exist any more. There is no land there any more.  Two more years, that's what I'm guessing. About two more years until it's right up to our house."

The rising waters have also created flooding in many buildings, making a mess.  The landfill has been flooding and raw human waste sewage is spewing up from storage sites.  The local water treatment site has been condemned and shuttered.

IV. Villagers are Hopeful About New Town Site

Tom is hopeful that the relocation will be carried out quickly, but he's bought a tent for his family (including his grandmother who relies on oxygen to survive) to live in, in case the house is lost before a replacement is built.  He comments, "A few years ago, they said next year. And then last year they said next year. And next year, they are probably going to say next year again.  It's picking up.  I'm not afraid any more. The erosion is really fast. I know the state is going to deal with it pretty fast. They are not going to leave us hanging there."

He's been training for construction.

Mammoth tusk
Melting is exposing valuable mammoth tusks, a bounty for villagers.
[Image Source: National Geographic]

At the end of the day even the skeptics must acknowledge that the world is warming and that some of it may be caused by man.  But flatlining temperatures over the last decade have shown us that the predicitions of doomsday "runaway warming" were likely alarmist exagerrations.  At the end of the day most of mankind's warming problems, like Newtok, are much like other non-warming problems -- the byproduct of an intrusive federal government bureaucracy.

But on an optimistic note, even the mess in Newtok has some upsides.  The melting is exposing new fossil fuel resources and lost mammoth tusks, which sell for thousands of dollars on the black market due to their popularity with carvers and collectors.

Sources: Guardian UK, Government Accountability Office

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