The edges of our country are eroding. From Alaska to Louisiana, centuries of culture, tangible history, and dynamic communities are being battered by stronger storms and sea level rise—raising difficult questions about adaptation, relocation, and what it means to be an American experiencing climate change today.
In this series Victoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer will chronicle America’s Eroding Edges (AEE), helping you explore the challenges of all those facing the impacts of climate change on their homes, livelihoods, and cultures. Join us on this journey as we discover the breadth and depth of what stands to be lost in America—and what we as a nation can do about it. More from AEE on Preservation Leadership Forum.
In interviews for the America’s Eroding Edges project, our first question for coastal residents is always, “What is the biggest problem facing your community today?” Climate change does not exist in a vacuum—it affects communities in tandem with other challenges and opportunities. Thus, climate solutions should be shaped with an understanding of community narratives beyond environmental hazards.
Shishmaref, Alaska, a village of 600 mainly Inupiat residents, sits in the Chukchi Sea on a narrow barrier island that, at points, measures barely a quarter-mile wide. For hundreds of years, Shishmaref has been losing land from natural erosion, but with climate change, that natural trend is getting a lot worse. Normally, an icepack develops around the island in the fall months. This ice has always acted as a buffer against severe storm surges, forcing waves to break miles off shore instead of against the village. But as warming temperatures have caused the ice to disappear, so too has this natural defense. Combined with thawing permafrost—the softening of the very land the village is built on—this has resulted in a loss of three to five feet of shoreline per year, with severe individual storms washing away as many as 50 feet of land. Storms caused such extreme erosion in 1997 and 2002 that some homes actually fell into the ocean and others needed to be moved. In August 2016 the community voted to relocate in full from its current site onto the Alaskan mainland five miles away.
However, land loss isn’t always the most pressing issue on residents’ minds. “Right now, I think our biggest issue besides the [vote] is our laundromat,” says Tiffany Magby, acting clerk of the Shishmaref City Council. “We have one washer available for the whole island—about 600 to 700 people.” Replacing the broken washer will be expensive, as it requires placing a special order to Nome that must then be shipped to the village by air.
The problem with the laundromat is emblematic of a larger issue for the community: a lack revenue that stays in the community. Percy Nayopuk, owner of the Nayokpuk General Store—one of the two groceries in Shishmaref—laments the state of the local economy over the past decades. In Percy’s view, everything changed in 1971 when Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which banned the sale of marine mammal products such as pelts, except in the form of native handicrafts.
“The biggest change,” Percy says, “is trying to survive without an economy. It’s very tricky. Back in the day the hunters here all made more than the sole white man in town, who was a teacher. The economy was taken away in 1971. And no alternative was given. Now it’s all transfer payments from the government. We were once very independent. Now we’re dependent.”
Shishmaref is not only facing an environmental crisis but also facing it at a time when its local adaptive capacity has been severely damaged by decades of political and economic disenfranchisement. But the potential to solve this problem exists in the village.
Passing Down a Cultural Heritage Economy
In addition to being expert hunters, many Shishmaref residents are expert carvers. Their carvings sell for hundreds of dollars through middlemen in Nome. A tannery at the top of the island would allow production of other traditional goods, but it has fallen into disrepair thanks to the high cost of the energy required to operate and maintain it.
In late August 2016, Shishmaref held a workshop in the community hall teaching local residents to make crafts from seal skin. Led by skilled community craftswomen, younger residents in their late teens, 20s, and 30s learned to handle, cut, sew, and piece together seal skin for hats, foots, mittens, and other articles.
Bringing together the oldest and youngest segments of the village—which are the two most rapidly growing segments of the Alaskan Native population—is significant, given that the two groups have been increasingly disconnected from one another in recent decades. From interviewing community members about the vote to move Shishmaref, we found that the majority of younger residents were in favor of relocation, whereas the majority of elder voters preferred to protect in place.
“We did have some fresh 18-year-olds come in to register to vote,” says Tiffany, who was responsible for certifying the results of the village referendum. “They had some very good opinions about relocating. They were so for it, because the new generation and their kids are going to be the ones … [around] when the time comes for us to do an emergency evacuation.” While the village did ultimately decide to relocate, they will need full community buy-in to make their move successful.
Reconstructing an economy in such a remote place is no easy task, but it is important to the community. Shishmaref has taken a first step toward a new economy by completing a local economic development plan for 2013–18. Based on a survey of the community, the plan explains that:
“[C]arved and sewn crafts are made and traded for other necessities. Visitors and local buyers purchase hand-crafted items for gifts and resale. The General Store buys crafts for resale. Some residents sell crafts on eBay, Facebook, and Etsy and some are interested in exploring “Alaska Made” opportunities. There is no e-commerce training in Shishmaref. But there is motivation and potential to form a coop to sell arts and crafts.”
The plan also notes that “the tannery is crucial to the Traditional lifestyle but is closed. Funding possibilities for heating and electricity are being explored. Marketing and management alternatives are also being looked into so it can be successfully maintained when reopened.”
Using an economic plan to identify the needs of the community builds an important foundation from which to launch future economic activity, but it is not enough. While the plan was completed in 2012, the tannery still stands dormant and the lack of internet connection prohibits many residents from selling their crafts online. Establishing a sustainable, long-term, economy—a critical, but undervalued part of the relocation process—will mean looking beyond the physical relocation costs and investing in Shishmaref as a culturally rich community: in its historic livelihood, its immediate needs, and its vision for the future that can bring young and old together. One strategy for connecting younger and older generations—thereby building consensus—is multigenerational cultural heritage exchanges that foster in-person forums. Young and old can express, share, and build off their respective visions for the future.
Victoria Herrmann is the president and managing director of the Arctic Institute and the lead researcher for America's Eroding Edges, which she works on with the help of research associate Eli Keene.