Residents of a small Alaskan village voted this week to relocate their entire community from a barrier island that has been steadily disappearing because of erosion and flooding attributed to climate change. In the unofficial results of an election on Tuesday in the village, Shishmaref, residents voted 89 to 78 to leave. The plan would move the village, which is 120 miles north of Nome, to one of two sites on the mainland about five miles away, officials said. But the village needs an estimated $180 million from a patchwork of sources to complete the move, according to a 2004 estimate. Shishmaref is an Inupiat community of about 600 people on Sarichef, an island north of the Bering Strait that is about one-quarter mile wide and two and a half miles long. It has been grappling for decades with the loss of buildings and infrastructure caused by storm surges, and it has shrunk over the past 40 years — more than 200 feet of the shore has been eaten away since 1969, according to a relocation study published in February.
Efforts to move the town in 1973 and 2002 were derailed by several issues, including attachment to a school built in 1977 and concerns about the long-term viability of alternate sites. Officials spent more than $27 million from 2005 to 2009 on coastal protection measures that had a life expectancy of 15 years, according to the relocation study.
Shishmaref is not alone in facing a move because of the effects of climate change. In January, the federal government allocated $48 million to relocate Isle de Jean Charles, La., an island that is sinking into the sea. The effort earned the residents the title of the United States’ first “climate refugees.”
As many as 200 million people could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change, according to a study for the British government. the International Organization for Migration estimated In Alaska, 31 villages face “imminent threat of destruction” from erosion and flooding, according to the Arctic Institute, a nonprofit group in Washington that studies issues affecting the Arctic.