Day 6

This village in Alaska has voted to move before climate change wipes them off the map

The village of Shishmaref, Alaska voted to pack up and move, making it the first community in the United States to opt for relocation over climate change concerns. Brent speaks with 19-year-old Esau Sinnok, an Arctic Youth Ambassador from Shishmaref, who says moving is his community's only hope.
Rising sea levels have eroded the shore near Esau Sinnok's grandparents' house. Residents of Shishmaref, Alaska have officially voted to relocate their community. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

By Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)

Shishmaref is not an easy place to find. It's a village on an island on the western coast of Alaska, just north of the Bering Strait, 30 km below the Arctic Circle. Siberia is 240 km away. By any definition, Shishmaref is on the edge of the world, and for decades that edge has been getting closer.

Shishmaref is losing territory to the sea. Warmer temperatures are melting the permafrost which anchored the island, as well as the barrier ice, which protected it from storm surges. As a result, the ocean claws away four metres of land each year.

Since 1990, they've moved 19 homes from one side of the island to the other. If they hadn't, those houses would be gone. Many Alaskan villages are reluctantly coming to the same conclusion as Shishmaref: if this battle continues, eventually the sea will win.

Shishmaref old airport now leads directly into the sea because of soil erosion. (Getty Images/Gilles Mingasson)

On Tuesday, in a referendum the people of Shishmaref voted to relocate. It was close. 78 people voted to keep fighting. 94 said it was time to leave. One of those was 18-year-old Esau Sinnok.

Growing up on a shrinking island has made Esau one of Alaska's most visible young environmentalists. He was an ambassador for the Sierra Club at the Global Climate Summit in Paris and as Arctic youth Ambassador he attends meetings of the Arctic Council, which was established by Canada.

"Relocation has been talked about ever since I was born and even before that," he told me on CBC Day 6.

A violent sea

Esau says the erosion of Shishmaref is not just a gradual erasure. He's witnessed the powerful storm surges first hand.

"I could just remember me and my grandparents sleeping at night and listening to those waves hitting the top of the roof," he says.

His grandparents' house was built on a cliff, but it wasn't safe from the surging sea.

"I remember when I was about seven years old, we had to move a lot of our stuff inside the house to our next door neighbors. And I just remember seeing the house empty with nothing inside of it and hearing the waves hit the house. And that's a really big cliff that we're on, it's about 15 [to] 20 feet high above the sea level. So those waves were huge."

His grandparents still live in their house on the cliff, but most of their neighbours have been moved and Esau says his family will have to find higher ground as well.

"My grandfather said that he really misses having his neighbours by him because he's the only house left there now - him and two other houses by the cliff."

Reluctant refugees

Esau believes soon the entire island will be evacuated. He believes relocation is inevitable, but he understands why Tuesday's vote was close and why some are voting to stay..

"Shishmaref will still be habitable for the next two [to] three decades if we do continue putting up sea wall. But sooner or later people have to realize that we have to relocate or else we'll be underwater."

"I respect their opinion to stay on the island because that is our home that's where my heart is. But I always tell people we need to relocate so that our future generations can live in a community called Shishmaref."  

He imagines that if the island were one-day deserted, he would return to visit.

"Oh yes certainly. I would visit there every single year. I'd visit there more than like two times a year and whenever I can I'll visit Shishmaref."

"I think of all the wonderful memories that I had not just growing up there but also growing up with a lot of friends and family there, because as the saying goes, It takes a village to raise a child. And that is very true, without all 600 people in Shishmaref, without all their help — I wouldn't have been able to travel to all these places that I have been to, to spread the word of Shishmaref. So it really does take a village to raise a child."

A template for other villages

The cost of moving Shishmaref is estimated to be around $180 million, but it's not clear where they would settle and the move is still unfunded.

If Shishmaref is able to solve some of those problems, it could provide a template for other communities, villages and towns on the Alaskan coast that are facing the same tough decisions as Shishmaref. Some, like Kivilina to the north, are confronting a much tighter timeline before inundation.

Esau sees a role for himself in the decisions that lie ahead.

"Yeah my goals are set high", he told me.

"I really want to run for Mayor of Shishmaref by the time I am done in college. And after becoming Mayor, I want to run for Senator then hopefully run for Governor of Alaska by the year 2030."

"I want to represent not just Shishmaref but also the 223 different communities all across Alaska being affected by climate change. I want the native voice, the village voice to be heard so that our problems can be heard and so that I can try and fix them for future generations."

If Esau makes it to the governorship in 2030, there may be fewer than 223 communities on his agenda. Kivilina could be under water by 2025.