Sabrina Warner keeps having the same nightmare: a huge wave rearing up out of the water and crashing over her home, forcing her to swim for her life with her toddler son.
“I dream about the water coming in,” she says.
The landscape in winter on the Bering Sea coast seems peaceful, the tidal wave of Warner’s nightmare trapped by snow and meters of ice. However, the calm is deceptive. Spring break-up will soon restore the Ninglick river to its full violent force.
In the dream, Warner climbs on to the roof of her small house. As the waters rise, she swims for the village school, which sits on 6m pilings. Even that is not high enough. By the time Warner wakes, she is clinging to the roof of the school, desperate to be saved.
Warner’s vision is not far removed from a reality written by climate change. The people of Newtok, on the west coast of Alaska and about 643km south of the Bering Strait that separates the state from Russia, are living a slow-motion disaster that will end, possibly within the next five years, with the entire village being washed away.
The Ninglick River coils around Newtok on three sides before emptying into the Bering Sea. It has steadily been eating away at the land, carrying off 30m or more some years, in a process moving at unusual speed because of climate change. Eventually all of the villagers will have to leave, becoming the US’ first climate change refugees.
It is not a label or a future embraced by people living in Newtok. Yup’ik Eskimo have been fishing and hunting by the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries and the villagers reject the notion they will now be forced to run in chaos from ancestral lands.
However, exile is undeniable. A report by the US Army Corps of Engineers predicted that the highest point in the village — the school of Warner’s nightmare — could be underwater by 2017. There was no possible way to protect the village in place, the report concluded.
If Newtok cannot move its people to a 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.
It is a choice confronting more than 180 native communities in Alaska, which are flooding and losing land because of the ice melt that is part of the changing climate.
The Arctic Council, the group of countries that governs the polar regions, gathered in Sweden last week. However, climate change refugees are not high on their agenda, and officials from the administration of US President Barack Obama told reporters on Friday last week there would be no additional money to help communities that are in the firing line.
On the other side of the continent, the cities and towns of the US east coast are waking up to their own version of Warner’s nightmare: the storm surges demonstrated by Hurricane Sandy. About half of the US’ population lives within 80km of a coastline, a number that is projected to grow.
What chance do any of those communities, in Alaska or on the Atlantic coast, have of a fair and secure future under climate change, if an area as small as Newtok — just 63 houses in all — cannot be protected?
As the villagers of Newtok are discovering, recognizing the gravity of the threat posed by climate change and responding in time are two different matters. Newtok lies 772km west of Anchorage. The closest town of any size — the closest doctor, petrol station or paved road — is almost 160km away.