Climate Migrants: Alaskan Islanders Stand Strong

SHISHMAREF, Alaska (HPD) — Search Shishmaref on the Internet and you’ll find photos of a small town with houses right next to the ocean. Also news that this western Alaska Native community is in danger of disappearing.

Climate change is partially responsible for rising seas, flooding, erosion, and the loss of protective land and ice sheets, factors that pose a threat to a community of 600 indigenous Iñupiat just a few kilometers from the Arctic Circle.

Shishmaref residents, however, are determined people with plenty of resources, according to Rich Stasenko, who came to Shishmaref to work as a teacher in the 1970s and never left. “Nobody feels like a victim here,” he said.

Residents, however, voted twice to move to a safer location. But they haven’t gone. There is not enough money to finance the move. And there’s nothing to compare to Shishmaref either. If they left, they would be far away from the places where they hunt, fish and gather berries to survive. A tight-knit community that prides itself on its traditions and belongs to the northernmost Lutheran church in the world would be dispersed and dismantled.

Residents are not lamenting the climate crisis, according to the Rev. Aaron Silco, pastor of the Shishmaref Lutheran Church along with his wife Anna. “There is a lot of life here.”

On a recent Sunday they celebrated Mass with about two dozen parishioners. Anna Silco asked a group of children to come to the altar and gave them mustard seeds to tell them a fable about keeping faith in the face of adversity. “A seed can become a very big tree”, she told them. “My faith may be as small as a mustard seed, but that’s enough for me” to get by.

Ardith Weyiouanna and two of her grandchildren explained their strong bond with Shishmaref.

“I don’t see myself living anywhere else,” said Weyiouanna, whose family came to Shishmaref by dog ​​sled in 1958.

“My house represents a lifestyle that I inherited from my ancestors. We live from the ocean, from the land, from the air… It is important to transmit all this to my children, my grandchildren, so that they maintain this lifestyle, ”he said.

That lifestyle is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The average temperature in Alaska has risen 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 degrees Celsius) since 1992, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Arctic has been warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, although it is now warming three times as fast as others in some years, according to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program. Assessment Program).



This report was produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It is part of a series exploring the lives of people around the world who have been forced from their homes by rising seas, droughts, high temperatures and other factors caused or exacerbated by climate change.


Shishmaref is located on the small island of Sarichef. Only half of the island is habitable and in recent decades several meters of coastal areas have been lost. Warmer weather, on the other hand, melts a protective layer of ice faster in the winter and makes the island more susceptible to storms.

In 1997, storm-associated erosion carried away more than 30 feet of soil and required 14 homes to be relocated, according to the Alaska Department of Commerce. Another five houses were moved in 2002.

Today Shishmaref is one of dozens of indigenous peoples facing serious climate-related challenges, according to a US Government Accountability Office report released in May, which said “(climate change) is expected to aggravate these threats.

“I suspect that eventually we will have to leave,” said Lloyd Kiyutelluk, chairman of the local tribal council. “I don’t want an emergency to be declared. But the way things are going… We see much stronger storms than in the past.”

Ahead of a major September storm, officials said parts of Alaska could see the worst flooding in 50 years. In Shishmaref, the storm destroyed a road that led to the garbage dump and to a lagoon that receives the sewage, creating a sanitary problem in a town where there is no running water. Molly Snell said that she prayed for a miracle that would prevent her town from being forced to relocate.

“A strong storm, with certain winds, could wipe out our island,” said Snell, 35, general manager of the Shishmaref Native Corporation.

“That some say that climate change is not real hurts us a little because it is something we see firsthand,” he said.

On a recent day, Snell prepared a dinner for the arrival of his partner, Tyler Weyouanna, who was turning 31, after a hunting trip. There was turkey, a cake decorated with a photo of him next to the last bear he had hunted, and akutuq, a kind of ice cream typical of the area, made with berries, seal oil, and fat from caribou and other animals.

Other hunters returned the same day with numerous seals, which they will skin and cure, a traditional process that usually takes weeks and is carried out by women. A polar bear skin was drying in the open air by the town’s airstrip.

Residents have snowmobiles and some ATVs.

“This community doesn’t produce greenhouse gas emissions or industrialization like Western Europe or North America,” said Elizabeth Marino, an anthropologist and author of “Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground: An ethnography of climate change in Shishmaref, Alaska.” ” (Fierce weather, sacred lands: An ethnography of climate change in Shishmaref, Alaska). She claims that the island suffers from a “climate injustice.”

John Kokeok began paying attention to the effects of climate change after a personal tragedy. His brother Norman, a seasoned hunter, knew the ice in the area and the trails. But during a hunting trip in 2007, his snowmobile sank over prematurely melting ice, and he died.

John attributes his death to climate change. He calls for action to be taken to protect Shishmaref and voted for a relocation of the village. But he also wants to preserve traditions. He now says that he will only leave if they force him to evacuate.

“I know we are not the only ones affected,” he said at his home, next to a photo of his brother. “I’m sure the same thing happens to everyone who lives on the coast. But this is our home.”


Associated Press climate coverage receives support from several private foundations. The HPD is solely responsible for the content.

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