Alaskan Native Village Votes to Leave Sinking Island

By Yessenia Funes Aug 18, 2016

The tiny Alaskan city of Shishmaref is home to approximately 600 people, nearly all of them Alaska Natives. People have lived in this village, located on Sarichef Island, for at least 400 years. Yet climate change is now literally sinking their home—and the men and women of Shishmaref have decided to go.

Yesterday (August 18), the city counted 167 votes cast by residents and 89 were in favor of leaving, according to a representative from the city council. Shishmaref is still awaiting absentee ballots from community members who are away "camping," which is when many leave for days or weeks to fish and hunt.

This vote was a long time coming. In 1973, the Village Corporation passed a resolution to relocate because of beach erosion and flooding, but the community decided to focus instead on protecting the land. More than forty years later, severe storms have worsened the island’s conditions, according to a Natural Resources Conservation Service report.

Still, these realities did not make the community’s decision any easier. “What’s special about Shishmaref is that we’re all family,” Esau Sinnok, an 18-year-old activist from the island, said to Fusion. “All 650 people there are my family and not being able to see them every day like I’m used to—if I had to move to the city—I’d be heartbroken and sad not seeing all of their faces.”

Some have already left. Fourteen households moved in 1997, and they were followed by five more in 2002. However, it is no easy task relocating an entire village. It is also costly: estimates put the price of relocation at $80 million to $200 million, while it would be approximately $27 million for the short-term solution of rebuilding infrastructure on the island.

Shishmaref isn’t alone. At least two other Alaskan villages—Kivalina and Newtok—face the same dilemma. Should they stay, or should they go? Though the decision remains unofficial until all votes are in, Shishmaref residents are fairly certain that they’ll be leaving.