When a Village Has to Move Shishmaref

In the plywood skiff with the big outboard engine, we wound our way up Tin Creek. It was nearly mid-August, the scene all around us pulsing with birds: green-winged teals tipping in the side sloughs, the white-fronted geese locals call speckle-bellies overhead, gulls keeping pace beside us. Tony Weyiouanna, driving the boat, knew the channel—knew where to find the deepest water—as only someone with years of close acquaintance could. The lowland country all around us was huge, and I was easily turned around in it as the creek bent one way and then folded back on itself, winding into low, treeless hills. Miles off, Ear Mountain with its two top bumps like rodent ears rose against blue sky. Somewhere out there, a crew was digging holes, evaluating the mountain as a source of gravel for a road, airstrip, and new village. And back behind us, twelve miles across the shallow inlet everyone called a lagoon, lay the barrier islands that lined the coast and the one called Sarichef, on which was located the village of Shishmaref, population 608.

If there is one place in America most identified with global warming and climate change, that place has to be Shishmaref, Alaska. The Inupiaq community struggling for its very existence has been portrayed around the world as an early victim of climate change. The opening chapter in Elizabeth Kolbert's landmark book Field Notes from a Catastrophe is called "Shishmaref, Alaska." Reporters have come from dozens of news outlets, from The New York Times to National Geographic and People magazine, from the BBC, National Public Radio, and CBS and ABC News.1 They've come from Germany, Japan, France, Sweden, and Holland. Al Gore's documentary crew came, and Gore has referred to the people of Shishmaref as "the first climate refugees." A group of scientists and evangelical religious leaders visited, accompanied by PBS reporters who filmed the visit for a NOW program called "God and Global Warming." A Dutch film and a separate Dutch photo book are each titled The Last Days of Shishmaref.

The story that has been told and shown, exhaustively now, is of the Inupiaq village on a small sand island on Alaska's northwest coast, eroding from storm waves no longer blocked by sea ice, and made more vulnerable yet as the permafrost that formerly held the land together thaws. As at Barter Island and elsewhere along Alaska's northern coasts, waves have a longer "fetch" across open water and storm surges pick up more energy. In 1997 a fall storm took 125 feet from the northern side of Shishmaref's island, dropping buildings into the sea and necessitating the move of a dozen homes as well as the National Guard Armory. Storms since have continued to erode the shoreline, and emergency seawall protections have been but a temporary "fix." The entire island is four and a third miles long and only a quarter mile wide, with the high point twenty feet above sea level. In 2002 residents voted to relocate the community and in 2006, following a study of alternative sites, voted to move to the area known as Tin Creek, on the mainland.

Shishmaref is not alone in its exigency. That Government Accountability Office report from 2003 identified 184 of the 213 villages in Alaska as being affected by erosion and flooding, and the situation has only worsened since.2 Shishmaref is one of six villages on the "immediate action" list. It is also the one that has been most public about its situation and need.

Weyiouanna, the principal architect of Shishmaref's public campaign, had brought me to Tin Creek to take a look at what he hoped—if the soil and other studies checked out—would be the new village location. He snugged the skiff up against the bank, and Fannie, his wife, jumped out with an anchor to secure us to shore. Weyiouanna, a kind man with a bushy mustache and the beginnings of gray in his dark hair, was born in Shishmaref and has lived there all his life, except for some time at college and in Nome. Since the late 1980s he's been a tireless advocate for relocating the village to higher ground—not because he or anyone wants to move, but because they know they must. From 2001 to 2007 much of his time as the village's transportation planner was devoted to an organization called the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition, in which role he used his considerable computer, communication, and personal skills to bring Shishmaref to the world's attention.

But Weyiouanna was tired. It had been a long effort, and it seemed to him now that the local people were losing control. More state and federal agencies than he could count were involved in multiple layers of studies and planning, and it was not at all clear how or when a move would actually occur, whether the preferred site would even be approved, and how any of it would be paid for.

"We seem to be going backward," Weyiouanna had told me at his house earlier in the day, when I'd met him and Fannie for the first time. He'd been sitting at the kitchen table and sharpening ulus while Fannie set out a pile of sourdough pancakes and the younger members of the Weyiouanna household—they have four teenagers—drifted in and out. They'd all gotten home from their camp on the mainland just hours earlier, and the Ziploc bags of salmon-berries they'd gathered—gallons of them—were piled in the entry, ready for the freezer. (Salmonberry is the local name for Rubus chamaemorus, otherwise known as cloudberry and, in Inupiaq, aqpik. It's the second-most important traditional subsistence resource in Shishmaref, after the bearded seal.) Weyiouanna is also an artist,

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