North

Barack Obama gives hope to Alaskan village affected by climate change

Kivalina, an island on the outer coastline of Northwest Alaska, is dealing with some of the North's most extreme effects of climate change and it recently had some high-profile exposure.

Kivalina, located on a sandspit, has to evacuate when storms sweep water over the island

An aerial shot of the village of Kivalina, an island on the outer coastline of Alaska, which is dealing with some of the North's most extreme effects of climate change. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza/Facebook)

Kivalina, a narrow strip of an island on the outer coastline of northwest Alaska, is dealing with some of the most extreme effects of climate change in the Arctic and it recently had some high-profile exposure.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently toured Alaska to talk about how new weather patterns are affecting about 30 communities in the state. He also flew over Kivalina, a village of about 400 mostly Inupiat residents located on a 13 kilometre sandspit.

Intense fall storms have forced evacuations from the village, which is about 1.6 kilometres from the mainland and only accessible by boat in the summer.

"The water goes over the island especially on the south-end side," says Millie Hawley, president of the Native Village of Kivalina, who introduced Obama and met with him on his tour.

A rock wall built in 2010 to protect the village from storms. (submitted by Millie Hawley)

A rock wall was built in 2010 to protect the village and to give it time to come up with a plan to relocate the entire community, but Hawley says because of erosion, water is already coming over the wall during storms.

"So we need to start working fast and getting our people on higher ground," says Hawley. "It's distressing. Distressing especially to the elders and to the mothers with infant babies."

The effects of climate change are also evident in the community's traditional hunt. Hawley says they harvested bowhead whale, bearded seal and walrus when there used to be ice. Now, she says the ice has diminished so far that they caught  only eight bearded seals this year, compared to the normal catch of 80.

Relocation a double-edged sword

The focus now is on building a causeway to connect the island with the mainland and to develop an evacuation plan once that road is built.

While the village has wanted to relocate for decades, it wouldn't be an easy move for residents. Hawley says it has to be a well thought-out plan.

“We need to start working fast and getting our people on higher ground,” says Millie Hawley, president of the Native Village of Kivalina, Alaska. (submitted by Millie Hawley)

"As a people we can't just relocate to other places because the land makes who we are. We are people who harvest off the sea, off the river, off the lands that surrounds our village and it makes us who we are."

Hawley says if they relocated to another village they would always be visitors in that community.

"We would have to adapt to their way of life and their food and we would lose our identity of a people, and that's what I wanted [Obama] to understand."

Hawley says she also wanted Obama to know the urgency of their situation, and she thinks he got the point.

The president announced $14 million in funding to the Denali Commission to look at the relocation of Alaskan communities.

Hawley says it feels good to know that the government is now taking Kivalina's concerns seriously, but she said she hopes the commission acts fast.

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