Sun, May 19, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The US’ first climate change refugees

The Yup’iks of Newtok are desperate to leave their village before rising river levels wash it away

By Suzanne Goldenberg  /  The Guardian, NEWTOK, Alaska

The only year-round link to the outside world is a small propeller plane from the regional hub of Bethel. The seven-seater plane flies over a landscape that seems pancake-flat under the snow: bright white for land, slightly translucent swirls for frozen rivers. There are no trees.

The village as seen from the air is a cluster of almost identical small houses, plopped down apparently at random on the snow. The airport is a patch of cement newly swept of snow, marked off by a circle of orange traffic cones. The airport manager runs the luggage into the center of the village on a yellow sledge attached to his snowmobile.

Like many native Alaskan villages, Newtok owes its location to a distant bureaucrat. The Yup’iks, who have lived in these parts of Alaska for hundreds of years, had traditionally used the area around present-day Newtok as a seasonal stopping-off place, convenient for late summer berry-picking.

Even then, their preferred encampment was a cluster of sod houses called Kayalavik, further upriver. However, over the years, the authorities began pushing native Alaskans to settle in fixed locations and to send their children to school.

It was difficult for supply barges to maneuver as far upriver as Kayalavik. After 1959, when Alaska became a state, the new authorities ordered villagers to move to a more convenient docking point.

That became Newtok. Current state officials admit the location — on low-lying mud flats between the river and the Bering Sea — was far from perfect. It certainly was not chosen with a view to future threats such as climate change.

“The places are often where they are because it was easy to unload the building materials and build the school and the post office there,” says Larry Hartig, who heads the state’s commission on environmental conservation. “But they weren’t the ideal place to be in terms of long-term stability and it’s now creating a lot of problems that are exacerbated by melting permafrost and less of the seasonal sea ice that would form barriers between the winter storms and uplands.”

It became clear by the 1990s that Newtok — like dozens of other remote communities in Alaska — was losing land at a dangerous rate. Almost all native Alaskan villages are located on rivers and coasts, and almost all are facing similar peril.

A federal government report found more than 180 other native Alaskan villages — 86 percent of all native communities — were at risk because of climate change. In the case of Newtok, those effects were potentially life-threatening.

The study by the US Army Corps of Engineers on the effects of climate change on native Alaskan villages, the one that predicted the school would be underwater by 2017, found no remedies for the loss of land in Newtok.

The land was too fragile and low-lying to support sea walls or other structures that could keep the water out, the report said, adding that the land would eventually be overrun with water. People could die if they do not move.

It was a staggering verdict for Newtok. Several of the village elders remember the upheaval of that earlier move. The villagers were adamant that they should take charge of the move this time and remain an intact community, rather than scattering to other towns.

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