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

Even in those short months, she says she can see the changes carved out on the land behind the family home.

“When I first got here the land used to be way out there,” she says, pointing toward the west. “Now that doesn’t exist any more.”

The river claims more of the village every year. Warmer temperatures are thawing the permafrost on which Newtok is built, and the land surface is no longer stable. The sea ice that protected the village from winter storms is thinning and receding, exposing Newtok to winter storms with strong winds and the waves of Warner’s nightmare.

When the wind blows from the east or south, the land falls away even faster. The patch of land where Warner practiced shooting in summer last year is gone, on the other side of a sharp drop-off to the river.

“The summer came, 15ft [4.5m] or 20ft of land went just from melting, and then after we had those storms in September another 20ft went,” she says.

In an average year the river swallows 25m of land a year, according to a report by the government accountability office. Some years, of course, it is more.

The reddish-brown house where Tom and Warner live with their son, Tyson, and elderly relatives is the closest in the village to the Ninglick.

Warner fears her house will soon be swallowed up by that hungry river.

“Two more years, that’s what I’m guessing. About two more years until it’s right up to our house,” she says.

The house is now barely 200 paces away from the drop-off point. It is become a sort of tourist stop for visitors to the village, and an educational aid for teachers at the local school. Last year, one teacher set out stakes to mark how fast the river was rising.

At least one has already been washed away. However, it will not be long before nobody in the village is safe. Other homes, once considered well back from the river, now regularly flood.

Over the years the river, in its attack on the land, engulfed a few small ponds — some freshwater, some used as raw sewage dumps — spewing human waste across the village.

Last summer it almost carried off a few dumpsters filled with old fridges and computers. It swept away the barge landing, and infested the landfill.

Sometimes, though, the river gives up treasure: villagers walking newly exposed banks have discovered mammoth tusks and fossil remains.

During one storm in autumn last year, Warner stayed up until 4am, waiting to see if the waves would engulf the house.

“I was scared because it looked so close because our window is right there. I was just looking out, and you can see these huge waves come at you,” she says.

It is not easy living with that fear every day, she says. Anxious residents want to know that their future will be safe. They are exhausted by the years of uncertainty and fed up with a village left to decay, with leaders’ energy and every scrap of funding focused on the relocation.

“Considering that our house is the closest, I would like it if they would at least let us know if we are going to have a house over there [at the new site],” Warner says.

Tom’s grandmother, who needs oxygen, lives with the couple. It would be hard to move her in the event of a disaster, although she claims she is not at all afraid.

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