On Alaska's remote Bering Sea coast, citizens of the United States, the world's largest economy and most powerful country, are fighting a desperate battle against the most serious environmental problem in human history: climate change. The roughly 400 residents of Newtok village who are mainly members of the Yupik native group voted in 2003 to relocate their entire community to higher ground but progress has been slow, hampered by logistical challenges and limited funds available for relocating a whole village in this most inhospitable terrain. Despite the will to move and the availability of federal assistance Newtok's residents face many of the same challenges as citizens of shrinking and disappearing island nations in the South Pacific with far fewer resources at their disposal. The people of Newtok are about to become climate change refugees. The effects of climate change in the Arctic are varied and complex. Thawing permafrost is making the foundations of dwellings and other infrastructure unsafe while coastal erosion is wearing down the last barriers against the encroaching sea and storms that batter the coast regularly. Newtok is below sea level, in a swampy plain between two rivers, and many of houses, the school, the paths between the houses and the roads leading to the village are slowly sinking into the bog. The village used to have a road leading several kilometres into the tundra, toward a rubbish dump and the mouth of the Ningliq River that flows into the Bering Sea. Now the road ends shortly after the last house of the village, sinking aimlessly into the swamp beyond.
According to the US General Accounting Office there are 31 Alaskan villages that face "imminent threats" from flooding and coastal erosion. Many of these will need to be relocated. But moving thousands of people to new homes, building new infrastructure and providing basic services to the new communities will costs hundreds of millions of dollars. Having seen their living space contract by about 30 metres of coastline over the past
years, the people of Newtok have started to decamp to a new site on higher ground called Mertarvik, on Nelson Island, around 14 kilometres from the original settlement. The new settlement can only be reached by boat and to date seven houses, warehouses, a few roads and a landing dock for building materials have been built. Three families have already taken up residence in the new village.
To protect the new houses in Mertarvik from future effects of global warming, a new construction technique needs to be used which relies on a metal frame that acts as a flexible foundation for the houses and can be adjusted if the earth sinks or moves. Aaron Cook, an architect based in Fairbanks, has been visiting Newtok over the past eight years and is actively involved in the relocation process. Each of the new houses is assembled on a set of large skis which allows its new tenants to decide where they want to live. The houses can easily be attached to the electricity grid and to water supply and are also fitted with a diesel generator, solar panels and a wind generator, thus assuring electricity supply in all weathers and all year round.
Climate scientists give Newtok around 10 to 15 years until it will be uninhabitable. This is putting community leaders such as Tom John in a bind as the process of moving the village is by no means straightforward and is expected to take a number of years. Arranging for provision of basic services to both sites during the transition period is by no means assured so villagers are moving across, house by house, in order not to disrupt village life too abruptly. Ultimately, the new settlements will need costly utilities like a power plant, an airport and a water tower to make it viable.
Other native Alaskan communities are watching the developments in Newtok closely since this will be a test case for the almost inevitable scenario of other villages having to move to higher ground. Other countries observing the situation in Alaska are also waiting to see how the US, one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, will respond to this man-made emergency on its own territory. The villagers of Newtok are acting out a scenario that will affect hundreds of coastal and island communities over the coming decades.