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Shishmaref, AK — Shishmaref, Alaska: Dramatic Erosion Forces Tough Choice for a Village

April 22, 2005

The 600 residents of Shishmaref, Alaska living on the western coast didn't expect to face the question: should we stay or should we go? Thanks to the effects of Global Warming, they have to decide whether their eroding village should be moved to solid ground or whether residents should abandon Shishmaref and call Nome their new home.

Shishmaref is not alone. Dozens of communities in rural Alaska -- nearly 90% of the states' 213 predominantly Native villages -- could be facing the same question within the next few years, due to repeated effects of floods or erosion.

And the problem is made significantly worse by global warming. According to a report issued by the General Accounting Office, a combination of melting permafrost and shortened season for their protective sea ice barrier due to climate change, Arctic communities are increasingly vulnerable to erosion and the impacts of fall storms.

The Bottom Line: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is debating whether to try to literally relocate Shishmaref at a cost of $180 million or relocate the whole community to Nome for half the price. Four other communities -- Dillingham, Bethel, Newtok, and Kivaline -- are also facing severe erosion. Some of these communities, however, are too large to move.

How it Affects You: Shishmaref and the Arctic Circle are far enough away from the lives of most Americans, in terms of distance and lifestyle, that most of us never or rarely think about the problems facing these communities. But, even if you are not a resident of Shishmaref, the reality is that global warming in the Arctic Circle impacts all of us.

Average temperatures in the Arctic region are rising twice as fast as they are elsewhere in the world. When the protective cooling layer of snow and ice over the Arctic melts, the earth absorbs more sunlight and gets hotter. The rising temperatures are not only affecting Alaska, but sensitive ecosystems from alpine meadows to coral reefs. If global warming is left unchecked we will all feel the heat close to home, whether from more severe drought, more frequent heat waves, or the spread of disease-carrying insects.