Climate change changes landscape, threatens flood of climate refugees

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Shishmaref, Alaska, is a village with a population of approximately 600, an Inupiat community on the small barrier island of Sarichef, north of the Bering Strait. The village is rather unassuming, with a single school, three main roads, a church, a post office, a few stores, and a collection of small houses. Yet this small, unassuming village is running out of space on their island, not because of human expansion, but instead because of the erosion of Sarichef island, erosion that is being attributed to climate change.

This is a problem that has plagued Shishmaref for decades — since 1969, more than 200 feet of shore has been eaten away from Sarichef island, according to a study published in February. Storm surges and flooding have caused loss of buildings and infrastructure, and officials have spent large amounts of time and money trying to save the island, totaling over $27 million dollars on coastal protection measures from 2005-2009.

Last week, in the unofficial results of an election, the people of Shishmaref voted 89 to 78 to relocate their town, electing to move to one of two sites on the mainland. They join the list of aptly named “climate refugees,” people who are being forced to relocate their homes and lives due to rising sea levels and storm surges caused by global warming.

Rising sea levels and extreme weather patterns are two of the most visible examples of the effects that global warming has had on the environment. As global temperatures rise, polar ice caps begin to melt, adding water to the Earth’s oceans. Sea water also expands as it warms, further contributing to the rising sea levels. Furthermore, as the air warms, it is able to hold more moisture, leading to heavier rainfall events that lead to further flooding and more extreme storms. The effects of these changes can be seen worldwide, and it is predicted that by the year 2050, as many as 200 million people could be displaced due to climate change.

It is easy to look at environmental issues such as air pollution, water pollution, and deforestation and see the extent of the negative impact that humans have had on our environment.

It is much harder to imagine our effect on something as massive as the oceans, or on something as seemingly permanent as the land. After all, we can watch slash and burn farming, we can see sewage be dumped into a water source, and we can understand a direct cause behind a very visible problem.

However, it is difficult to instill fear with a few extra inches of seawater. The rising sea levels are problems that are hard to witness before it is too late.

It is often not until a major storm breaks, or until the flooding gets bad enough to make an area uninhabitable, that we realize a problem existed. However, there is evidence all around us. There is Isle de Jean Charles, a Louisiana island that was granted $48 million dollars in January to relocate its residents to safer ground after the island experienced flooding, saltwater intrusion, and shoreline erosion that has made the island uninhabitable. There is Shishmaresh, whose island home has been whittled down to an island a quarter of a mile wide and two miles long.

These problems are not some distant threat, they are staring us down in the face. They are problems that are making themselves visible more and more each year, accumulating years of chipping away at shorelines until it is seen in the disappearance of land, property, and community. Yes, today it might be an island in Alaska or an island in Louisiana with a population smaller than a suburban high school, but tomorrow it is the coast of Florida, it is New Orleans, it is the
more than 1,000 American towns that are threatened by rising sea levels.

Luckily, for Shishmaref and for Isle de Jean Charles, relocation is an option especially suited for small populations. But what happens when the displacement doesn’t affect a few hundred people, but instead affects 200 million? Will we be able to handle it? It is time to take action now, to plan now, to look for solutions now, because if we wait for the problem to show itself, it will be much too late.