The small town of Newtok, Alaska is fighting for its life. As global temperatures rise, the town of 340 Yup’ik people is losing the land below it, as it melts into the sea. “The permafrost under Newtok is no longer permanent,” writes Mark Dowie in Orion (November | December 2010), “and the thick winter ice that once sheltered the village from increasingly violent storm surges thaws and breaks up a little earlier every year…. The village could be completely gone in ten years.”
So, what do you do when you’re community is falling into the sea? You move it. But that process comes at a cost. About $380,000 per person, in fact, writes Dowie. The process is not only an expensive one, but a complicated one, too, that involves moving buildings across large portions of frozen land or on barges in the summer, as well as constructing new buildings in a new location. The larger cost, though, to many of the Yup’ik people is the potential lose of culture. As Dowie explains it, family—and therefore history—is essential to the Yup’ik people. His first encounter with some of the Yup’ik children makes this point clear to him:
“What’s your name?” they ask.
“Mark, do you have children?”
“What are their names?”
I name them slowly. They repeat every name.
“And what is your wife’s name…and your brother, your sister, mother, father?”
And that’s all they really want to know. They don’t ask why I am there or where I am from. But my family is vital information, perhaps the only thing that really matters about me.
The fact that Newtok is slipping into the sea, then, makes for a hard-hitting metaphor for the Yup’ik people. As the coastline disappears and tribal leaders scramble to decide how to move the town to higher, more stable ground, outsiders recommend solutions—moving to Fairbanks or Anchorage, “co-locating” with another village—that, to the Yup’ik people, would have the same results as the disappearing shoreline, namely, their culture disappearing along with it. “If we don’t get assistance for relocation,” said Tony Weyiouanna, a civic leader, “then we face elimination by dissemination and dispersal. People will be forced to relocate by themselves, as individuals or families, not as a community of people. If that happens, we lose our culture and traditions.”
Unfortunately, Newtok is not the only area facing the catastrophic results of climate change, and therefore the Yup’ik people aren’t the only ones looking for funding to relocate. Dowie writes of a 4,000-year-old Inupiat settlement that needs between $150 and $180 million to move seven miles away. With numbers like that, along with other costs Alaska is facing as a state in response to rising temperatures (“Over the past sixty years, Alaska’s annual temperature has risen four degrees,” Dowie writes, “which is double the global average.”), it will be surprising if the 31 native villages in imminent danger due to erosion all make it to higher ground in time.