Shishmaref is a small village of about 600 people located on Sarichef Island in the Chukchi Sea, just north of the Bering Strait and five miles from the Alaska mainland. The 3-mile long barrier island on which the village sits is slowly eroding away. Whenever a big storm hits, a giant chunk of land falls off to sea, sometimes taking off with it a house or two.
The island has dealt with erosion issues since at least the 1950s, but recent climate change is exacerbating the problem considerably. Average temperatures are increasing faster in Alaska than they are in the rest of the United States, warming 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 50 years. Rising temperatures have reduced sea ice which have protected Shishmaref from storm surges in the past. At the same time, the higher temperatures are causing the permafrost that the village is built on to melt making the shore even more vulnerable to erosion.
The residents of Shishmaref, most of whom are Alaska Native Inupiaq people, have tried to counter these problems by moving houses away from the cliffs and constructing barriers along the northern shore. But the sea continued to eat away at their land. Finally, in 2002, the residents voted to relocate from the island, but more than 12 years have passed and this has not happened. To find a proper location, building infrastructure and then moving an entire town costs money and government funding is hard to get.
Besides, Shishmaref is not alone. A dozen Alaskan villages are at the risk of coastal erosion and other climate-related change such as flooding. According to one Environmental Justice Foundation report, as many as 150 million people around the world may become "climate refugees" because of rising sea levels due to global warming.
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