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

And so after years of poring over reports, the entire community voted to relocate to higher ground across the river. The decision was endorsed by the state authorities. In December 2007, the village held the first public meeting to plan the move.

The proposed new site for Newtok, voted on by the villagers and approved by government planners, is only 15km away, atop a high ridge of dark volcanic rock across the river on Nelson Island. On a good day in winter, it is a half-hour bone-shaking journey across the frozen Ninglick river by snowmobile.

However, the cost of the move could run to as much as US$130 million, according to government estimates. For the villagers of Newtok, finding the cash, and working their way through the government bureaucracy, is proving the challenge of their lives.

Five years on from that first public meeting, Newtok remains stuck where it was, the peeling tiles and the broken-down office furniture in the council office grown even shabbier, the dilapidated water treatment plant now shut down as a health hazard, an entire village tethered to a dangerous location by bureaucratic obstacles and lack of funds.

Village leaders hope this summer, when conditions become warm enough for construction crews to get to work, will provide the big push Newtok needs by completing the first phase of basic infrastructure at the new location. And the effort needs a push. When autumn storms blow in, the water rises fast.

Climate change remains a politically touchy subject in Alaska. The state owes its prosperity to the development of the vast Prudhoe Bay oil fields on the Arctic coast.

Even in Newtok, there are some who believe climate change is caused by negative emotions, such as anger and envy. However, while some dispute the overwhelming scientific view that climate change is caused primarily by human activities, there is little argument in Alaska about its effects.

The state has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the country in the past 60 years. Freeze-up occurs later, and snow is wetter and heavier. Wildfires erupt on the tundra in the summer. Rivers rush out to the sea. Moose migrate north into caribou country. Grizzlies mate with polar bears as their ranges overlap.

Even people in their 20s, such as Warner and her partner, Nathan Tom, can track the changes in their own lifetimes. According to Tom, the seasons have changed.

“The snow comes in a different timing now. The snow disappears way late. That is making the geese come at the wrong time. Now they are starting to lay their eggs when there is still snow and ice and we can’t go and pick them. It’s changing a lot. It’s real, global warming, it’s real,” he says.

On days when the clouds move in, and the only sound is the crunch of boots on snow it is difficult to imagine a world beyond the village, let alone a threat. However, Warner has seen the river rip into land and carry off clumps of earth.

“It’s scary thinking about summer coming,” she says. “I don’t know how much more is going to erode — hopefully not as much as last year.”

Warner was raised in Anchorage and Wasilla, mainly by her non-Yup’ik father. However, she was introduced to Yupi’ik ways by her mother, and she has taken to village life since moving to Newtok in December 2011 to be with Tom.

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