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CLIMATE REFUGEES: Alaskan village stands on leading edge of climate change

Moving to higher ground

Alaskan village stands on leading edge of climate change

Reporters Anna York and Phil Daquila traveled to Newtok, Alaska, to see firsthand how the rising sea threatened the stability of the village and its residents. Their trip coincided with a visit by state and federal governments of the proposed new village site, nine miles north of Newtok across the Ninglick River.


NEWTOK, ALASKA—Long before scientists spoke of climate change, the elders warned that the villagers should move to higher ground. “We ignored them,” Stanley Tom says. “I didn’t believe them.”

Tom, 49, has grown up watching his village change. As Newtok’s tribal administrator, he is the local equivalent of a mayor in this Yup’ik Eskimo village of 350 residents in southwest Alaska.

A few feet beneath Alaska’s tundra lies a layer of frozen soil called permafrost. Until recent years, this icy soil has remained frozen, providing a foundation for buildings and a sturdy buffer against the sea.

But Alaska’s climate is getting hotter—and quickly. During the past 50 years, the state has warmed at more than twice the rate of the rest of the United States. Now the permafrost is melting. The foundation under Newtok is crumbling, as are the village’s buildings. The old school and the community hall have buckled and started to sink into the muddy earth.

“Everything’s deteriorating,” Tom says quietly, as he describes the boardwalk built over the muddy soil to connect Newtok’s houses and buildings. The boardwalk’s wooden planks literally float on top of the wet and spongy mud beneath.

Meanwhile, rising waters are eating into the village at a rate of up to 83 feet a year, according to the federal Government Accountability Office. Some villagers have observed erosion as fast as 100 feet a year.

A handful of the village’s 60 or so buildings have been abandoned all together because of their precarious location at the edge of the town’s eroding shoreline. Others are at constant risk of flooding at high tide.

Tom’s cousin, Margaret Nickerson, stands on the village’s shoreline during an unseasonable storm on a Friday morning in early July. Howling winds nearly force her off her feet.

“Mother nature is getting pissed off at us,” she shouts over the wind. “Ten, maybe twenty years ago it wasn’t like this.”

Now she knows it is too dangerous to stay.


Newtok is one of the first casualties of climate change, but it won’t be the last.

Already, more than 200 Native Alaskan villages have problems with flooding and erosion. At least 12 threatened villages have elected to explore relocation.

In the mainland U.S., coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise, according to a June 2009 report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The report warns major metropolitan centers along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to prepare for serious impacts.

Rising seas are affecting the Pankhali region in Bangladesh and the island nations of the Maldives and Tuvalu so dramatically that their respective governments are now considering wholesale migration as a matter of public safety. Because of similar threats, 3,000 residents of the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific are evacuating to Papua New Guinea.

Worldwide, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that 150 million people could become environmental refugees by 2050.

But managing the refugees, and deciding who should pay for the relocation of communities, is a new problem for governments.

The predicament is particularly tricky because liability for the crisis cannot be clearly attributed to one individual or organization. Any person on the planet who has driven a car or used electricity is partly responsible for the warming climate. So, too, are oil, gas and coal companies that profit from the release of heat-trapping gases.

The governments that failed to act before climate change hit home also share the blame. But they are struggling to determine which agencies should pay for relocation because of the high costs of moving communities. These costs will not be fully assessed until the first relocations are actually completed.

Robin Bronen, a human rights and immigration attorney who has been following the work of the Alaskan government and Newtok’s situation, says the state government has not developed effective ways to protect communities at risk from climate change.

“Alaska is at the forefront of this issue,” she says. “It’s been really, really hard because there is no roadmap.”

Are governments prepared to manage this difficult and potentially costly problem?

“Absolutely not,” Bronen says.


Newtok lies on the Ninglick River near Alaska’s west coast, 400 miles from the nearest road.

Traveling to the village from Anchorage involves a two-hour plane trip to Bethel, a regional center that serves as a hub for dozens of tiny villages scattered over a region the size of Ohio.

From Bethel, the flight to Newtok takes 90 minutes on a seven-seater prop plane, including several stops in neighboring villages to drop off supplies and pick up trash.

This plane is one of the only ways to reach Newtok, which is 30 miles away from the nearest neighboring village of Tununak. To visit friends, Yup’ik Eskimos often make the trek on foot. During the colder months known as “freeze up,” they travel by snow machine over the frozen tundra.

From the sky, Newtok appears precariously perched on a thin strip of land wedged between the Ninglick and Newtok Rivers near the Bering Sea. Puddles of water encircle the village. alaska_article_image2
A view of the remote native village of Newtok, Alaska, from the shore of the Newtok River. (Photo by Phil Daquila)

Newtok is composed of small wooden houses scattered along this narrow strip of land. Next to many of these houses stand smaller wooden huts – steam houses where the villagers bathe and meet, in much the same manner as their ancestors.

Newtok’s public buildings are similarly understated. A new clinic stands on high stilts at the edge of the village. A tiny wooden post office and a newer, bright blue school building are connected to the other buildings by the rickety boardwalk. The community building houses the village’s native drums and bingo equipment – the two main forms of entertainment in Newtok. Villagers are advised of the commencement of events inside the hall by way of announcement on the two-way radio system that serves as Newtok’s audio billboard, in place of phones or Internet connections.

As the plane circles to land, it is plain to see the Ninglick River’s waters encroaching on the village as a result of increased temperatures and rising sea levels in the nearby Bering Sea, from which the river flows.

Officials first assessed Newtok’s erosion problems in 1983 when the villagers hired a consultant to evaluate the effects of the rising waters.

After a series of public meetings and surveys spanning almost two decades, residents decided in 2003 to relocate the entire village to a grassy hillside on Nelson Island, nine miles upstream. Building a new village provided the only opportunity for the small community to stay together. In the end, it was the only option the residents deemed viable.

But moving a village is not just a matter of packing boxes and loading a moving truck.

New infrastructure must be built: plumbing, walkways, streets and electricity. Construction has only just begun on a barge landing that will provide an access point for delivery of the equipment and materials needed to build a new community from scratch.

The Army Corps of Engineers has estimated the cost of relocating Newtok will be between $80 and $130 million, or up to $380,000 per resident. (Stanley Tom disputes this estimate, arguing that the voluntary labor the villagers plan to contribute will significantly reduce the costs.)

It took Stanley Tom a long time to convince the government that the village needed assistance. But when officials did decide to step in, he realized he was way ahead of the public servants he had turned to for help.

Tom says he had already completed an impact assessment and obtained permits for the new village site. But the government officials seemed confused, he says.

“They don’t know how to do it,” Tom says. “They don’t know how to listen to me (probably because) I’m native, and they’re probably saying I don’t know nothing.”

Sally Russell Cox is a planner with Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. She has been working with Tom on the relocation for the past three years.

Cox says that relocating a village involves specialized skills beyond the capacity of any single agency. The result, she says, is an experimental approach.

“It’s hit and miss as we go along,” she says.

To address this problem, the Newtok Planning Group was formed in 2006.

The planning group consists of representatives from nine Alaskan state government agencies, 10 federal organizations and five regional non-profit groups. Because of the formation of the planning group, some progress has been made toward the village’s relocation, including initial studies and layout plans of the new village. Apart from the landing dock and three prefabricated homes constructed by the villagers themselves, no infrastructure has yet been laid down at the new site.

Margaret Nickerson serves dried herring, pike, salmon and seal ribs to village children who have visited for lunch. The dried fish is dipped in seal oil, which is served in small plastic bowls. (Photo by Phil Daquila)

On a sunny Wednesday in late June, Margaret Nickerson, Stanley Tom’s cousin, eats lunch with some members of her large family in her small wooden house in the center of the village.

As the family sits in her front room—which serves as a kitchen, workroom, dining area and chaotic storage space—she serves strips of dried pike, herring and salmon. She throws a handful of fish portions into the center of a table surrounded by her relatives and several young children who wander in.

She tears off small fish pieces and dips them into the seal oil, a bowl of the slightly yellowish substance set in front of each guest. As they chew on their meal, Nickerson and her brothers describe their work and daily life in the face of the devastating changes in recent years.

Summer is a busy season for the villagers. While the men set out on fishing trips – often for several days at a time—the women are responsible for cleaning, cutting and drying the catches their husbands and brothers bring back. These subsistence activities occupy the majority of their daily lives, just as they did for their parents and grandparents.

Sitting at the lunch table, Teddy Tom, 43, remembers a totally different landscape. “All the land that used to be here is gone,” he says. “There used to be a huge hill. We couldn’t see the village when we came from Tununak after fish camp. Nowadays, because the weather is warm—too warm—the land is sinking. Now we can see the village from a distance.”

He expresses hope about the new location.

“When we go to the new site, it will be a much better place for us to stay,” he says. “The land will be much higher.”

“The motivation is the family,” Stanley Tom explains later. “We were born here. We want to stick with our subsistence lifestyle.”

Fellow resident Bernice John agrees.

“If we don’t keep our culture, our kids won’t learn them from another place,” she says.

Time is running out for Newtok, and the question of who should pay for the move is proving contentious.

“We have all the right players at the table to help the community, but the funding is a really difficult variable to deal with,” Department of Commerce planner Cox says. “If we had the funding we needed to come in and help, the process would be sped up considerably.”

Stanley Tom is adamant that government has a responsibility to bear the costs, particularly because the government spurred the settlement of Newtok 40 years ago.

At that time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs threatened to take custody of the Yup’ik children if the community did not abandon its traditionally itinerant lifestyle and construct a permanent school, he says.

Cox agrees that the government should pay for the move, but doubts that finding funding will be easy.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to think that some big wellspring of funding is going to come through,” she says.

Mike Black, deputy commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, is one of the most senior officials promoting Newtok’s relocation.

He too says paying for the move is Newtok’s biggest challenge.

But neither Cox nor Black will say where funds for the project should come from.

Since no single government agency has ultimate responsibility for the relocation project, it seems no single funding source is likely to be identified. Instead, the loose network of agencies that composes the Newtok Planning Group is being held together by good will and Tom’s vigilance. And funds are being pieced together grant by grant as each individual step of the project is planned.

“The irony here is that we are trying to avert a disaster,” Mike Black muses as he hikes up the hillside at the site of Newtok’s proposed new village. “If you wait for a disaster like Katrina, at least you have a mandate and funding.”

Alaskan immigration attorney Robin Bronen says the fact that most public support is only available in the form of reconstruction or post-disaster relief is one of the main problems for government. This relief is no use to communities living through a slow, ongoing disaster.

Waiting until after a crisis has been declared—or until Newtok has drowned—is a risk that no one wants to take.

“That’s why it’s so critical we think about it now because there are lots of different things that need to be put in place in order for a relocation to happen in a way that protects people’s rights,” Bronen says.

Meanwhile, Stanley Tom spends his days in the small wooden building that serves as Newtok’s Traditional Council office, preparing grant applications and briefing papers.

“It’s finally getting there,” he says of his efforts at driving the relocation of his village.

“I’m beginning to think if I do a lawsuit they will pay more attention. I hate to do that, but if I run out of choices—that’s my last option.”

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