Echoing a great chronicler of the human condition, the tiny city of Shishmaref, Alaska, is asking whether it’s better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles to combat a looming climate change–driven disaster.
Shishmaref is located on an island five miles from the mainland, just north of the Bering Strait. For years, a reduced ice pack has hastened erosion that chips away at the island’s shores and has already drawn buildings into the sea.
Over the past decade, the United States Army Corps of Engineers, a Native nonprofit, and local officials have applied short-term physical interventions to the island to curtail erosion, without success. Doubling down on damage control, the state of Alaska tapped global engineering firm AECOM to produce the “Shishmaref Relocation Site Selection Feasibility Study,” a 300-page investigation that analyzes various scenarios for the City of Shishmaref to stay put or pack up.
Funded by a grant from the Alaska Climate Change Impact Mitigation Program, the study presents four options: Stay, or relocate to one of three different sites on the mainland. Shishmaref, a 607-person city, is majority Native and skews young—the median age is 22.5.
AECOM recommended that Shishmaref stay, citing the cost of moving and inhabitants’ cultural connection to the sea. The city already has massive infrastructure, said R. Scott Simmons, emergency manager for AECOM in Alaska. He cited a $2.2-million, 200-foot riprap seawall at the west end of Shishmaref and a revetment funded by a state grant protect the city from erosion, plus a number of projects in the pipeline: Shishmaref intends to redo its airplane runway, expand the school, and rebuild its roads, with a plan to pave those that are heavily traveled.
Touting these assets, the study, released February of this year, notes that the mainland has more stable soil and less threat of coastal erosion but that a location far from shore would undermine an economy centered on subsistence hunting and fishing.
“Alaska Natives live off the land,” said Simmons. “During annual freeze and thaw conditions, they can’t travel, and that’s the same time some of the sea mammals are migrating. If they live on the mainland, they won’t be able to get across the ice that’s forming—or not formed yet.” He explained it’s too dangerous at these times to travel to the island, which is the community’s traditional access point to the open sea.
The community nevertheless voted 89 to 78
to leave. This is not the first time: In 1973
and 2002,the city’s decisions to relocate unraveled because of logistic to relocate unraveled because of logistic constraints. Now, however, it will cost $200 million to relocate homes and infrastructure to the new site, where, among other improvements, new roads, utilities, and a barge landing will need to be built. The state has granted the city $8 million toward the move; it remains to be seen how the rest of the cost will be covered.