Alaskan village fights for survival as island disappears

Michael Walsh
·Reporter

Climate change is not an abstract debate for the villagers of Kivalina, an island off of Alaska’s northwest coast — it’s a matter of survival.

As Yahoo News reported previously, the indigenous whaling community’s remote home island vanishes into the surrounding Chukchi Sea little by little each year, as Arctic sea ice melts due to global warming.

The islanders knew they should relocate in the ’90s because of overcrowding, but time started to run out quickly in 2004. Sea ice that typically served as a protective barrier from violent storms failed to form. Every year since, the roughly 450 residents have seen torrents wash away more and more of their island.

Joe McCarthy, a content creator for Global Citizen, a social-action platform dedicated to addressing the world’s most serious problems, traveled to Kivalina earlier this month for three days. He spoke to the villagers about how climate change is wreaking havoc on their home, the financial hurdles of relocating and their fight to preserve their rich cultural heritage and tight-knit community for his recent feature “Climate Change Refugees: How a Tiny Alaska Town Is Leading the Way on Climate Change.”

When Yahoo News asked McCarthy what he learned from his journey to Kivalina that was not clear from reading literature on the community beforehand, he focused on the resiliency of the villagers. Whereas some might see them as merely the first victims of climate change, McCarthy saw a proud community that was determined to keep their world from being torn apart.

Residents of Kivalina. (Photo: Hans Glick/Global Citizen)
Residents of Kivalina. (Photo: Hans Glick/Global Citizen)

“I wanted to convey how even though they are being dramatically affected by climate change — more so than anywhere else in the U.S. — they are also versed in what’s going on, in the complexities of bureaucracy and the government processes that could unlock the funding that they need and that they are doing all they can to take charge of situation,” McCarthy said.

“They’re not going to just allow their lives to fall apart. They’re really trying to develop a framework and a way forward that ultimately other communities that are facing coastal erosion can follow and take guidance from.”

McCarthy saw the city counsel, relocation committee and tribal leaders spearheading these efforts on their own, without much state or federal support at all. There simply isn’t enough political will among outsiders to spend the amount of money needed for relocation when it would benefit fewer than 500 people.

Christine Shearer, program director for an energy research organization called CoalSwarm, told Yahoo News that relocation might cost up to $100 million. But time is of the essence: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that Kivalina could be uninhabitable in 2025.

“They really have to do all of the clamoring to drum up support. Otherwise, they’re just going to be abandoned,” McCarthy said.

A view of Kivalina, Alaska. (Photo: Hans Glick/Global Citizen)
A view of Kivalina, Alaska. (Photo: Hans Glick/Global Citizen)

He described the townspeople as generous and hospitable. They welcomed him into their homes and were eager to share their stories.

McCarthy said the community led a nomadic lifestyle for centuries but had been forced to settle on the island by the federal government in the early 1900s. They have identified a nearby site where they would like to relocate and studies are underway to determine if it’s a viable option.

“If they were forced to abandon it because the island just disappeared, who knows what would happen,” McCarthy said. “They might have to be scattered to other communities in the region, and that would shatter their cohesiveness and the cultural integrity they’re trying to preserve.”

You can read more about the crisis facing the people of Kivalina on the Global Citizen website.

Kivalina is about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle. (Photo: Hans Glick/Global Citizen)
Kivalina is about 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle. (Photo: Hans Glick/Global Citizen)

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