Search online for the small town of Shishmaref and you’ll see homes dangerously close to the ocean, and headlines warning that this native community in western Alaska is on the verge of extinction.
Climate change is partly responsible for the rising seas, flooding, erosion and loss of ice and protective land that threaten this Inupiat village of around 600 inhabitants a few kilometers from the Arctic Circle.
But the dire situation is only part of the story.
The people of Shishmaref are resourceful and resilient, said Rich Stasenko, who came to Shishmaref to teach in the 1970s and never left. “I don’t see any casualties here.”
Yes, residents voted twice to move out. But they didn’t move. There is not enough money to finance the relocation. And perhaps, more importantly, there are no places like Shishmaref. Elsewhere, they would be far from the best places for hunting, fishing and gathering the subsistence berries that form the bulk of their diet. They would be dispersed from their close-knit community which is proud of its traditions and celebrates milestones at home, at the local school and in one of the most northern Lutheran churches in the world.
But it’s too heavy to dwell solely on the climate crisis, said Reverend Aaron Silco, who co-pastors Shishmaref Lutheran Church with his wife, Anna. “There is still life happening.”
On a recent Sunday, they celebrated Mass with about two dozen parishioners. Reverend Anna Silco asked the children in the group to gather on the altar steps and gave them mustard seeds to explain the parable of keeping the faith despite the difficulties. “A mustard seed can grow into a huge tree,” she told them. “My faith can be as small as a mustard seed and that will be enough.”
Ardith Weyiouanna and two of her grandchildren reflected on how they were related to Shishmaref.
“It’s hard to see me living anywhere else,” said Weyiouanna, whose family first arrived in Shishmaref with a dog sledding team in 1958.
“My home is my way of life, passed down from my ancestors – living off the land, the ocean, the air… And it’s important to teach this to my children, to my grandchildren. children…so they can continue the life we’ve known in our time and before our time,” she said.
This traditional way of life is vulnerable to the effects of climate change. In Alaska, the average temperature has increased by 2.5 degrees (1.4 degrees Celsius) since 1992, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. According to the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, the Arctic used to warm twice as fast as the globe as a whole, but it has now warmed up to three times as fast in some seasons.
Shishmaref is on the small island of Sarichef. Only about half is habitable, but hundreds of feet of shoreline have been lost in recent decades. A warmer climate also melts a protective layer of ice faster in the fall, making it more vulnerable to storms. In 1997, about 30 feet of the north shore was eroded after a storm, causing the displacement of 14 homes, according to an Alaska Department of Commerce report. Five other houses were moved in 2002.
Today, Shishmaref is one of dozens of Alaska Native villages that face significant environmental threats, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in May that says climate change “is expected to exacerbate” those threat.
“I’m afraid we might have to move eventually,” said Lloyd Kiyutelluk, chairman of the local tribal council. “I don’t want it declared an emergency. But the way things are…we have storms that we’ve never seen before.
Ahead of a powerful storm in September, officials warned that some places in Alaska could experience the worst flooding in 50 years. In Shishmaref, the storm destroyed a road leading to the landfill and sewage lagoon, creating a health hazard for a town that lacks running water. Molly Snell said she prayed for a miracle that would save her village from being forced to evacuate.
“The right storm with the right wind could wash away our whole island,” said Snell, 35, chief executive of the Shishmaref Native Corporation.
“For someone to say climate change isn’t real hurts a bit because we see it firsthand,” she said.
Recently, she cooked dinner for the 31st birthday of her partner, Tyler Weyiouanna, who had just returned from a hunting trip. Their meal included turkey, a cake decorated with a picture of him and the last bear he hunted, and akutuq, an ice cream-like dish traditionally prepared by native Alaskan cultures. from berries, seal oil and fat from caribou and other animals.
Other hunters also returned home that day with a catch of spotted seals that were deposited outside ready to be skinned and cured, a traditional week-long process that is usually carried out by women. A polar bear’s fur has dried in a locker next to the city’s airstrip.
Residents drive snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, but there are no other vehicles on the sandy roads.
“It’s not a community that is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions and industrialization to the extent that we know Western Europe and North America have been,” Elizabeth said. Marino, an anthropologist and author of “Fierce Climate, Sacred Ground: An ethnography of climate change in Shishmaref, Alaska. She described it as climate injustice, and some believe that injustice cost lives.
Ask John Kokeok about the effects of climate change and he’ll tell you he started paying attention after a personal tragedy. His brother Norman, a skilled hunter, knew the ice and the trails well. Yet, during a hunting trip in 2007, his snowmobile fell through the ice which melted earlier than usual and died.
John blames climate change and has since told his story in hopes of warning younger generations and finding solutions to protect Shishmaref. He voted to move the community to safer ground. But he also wants to protect their traditions. Only a forced evacuation could make him leave now.
“I know we’re not the only ones affected,” he said in his living room, next to his brother’s photo.
“I’m sure there’s everyone on the coast. But this is home.
—Luis Andres Henao, Associated Press