Superstorm Sandy was a dramatic preview of what cities on the Eastern Seaboard might expect as climate change intensifies, but 12 small, indigenous communities on Alaska's coast provide the most extreme example of how global warming can wreak havoc.
Flooding, building collapses due to erosion and severe water pollution are only some of the many problems that have troubled these villages.
But according to Alaskan human rights attorney Robin Bronen, the situation is worsened by the lack of government framework to help communities so battered by climate change that they must relocate entirely. Because such a move is unprecedented, several communities' relocation attempts have been stalled for up to 10 years.
Speaking at a Brookings Institution panel on Arctic Indigenous Peoples, Displacement and Climate Change yesterday in Washington, D.C., Bronen presented a paper on the challenges Alaskan indigenous communities face as they try to move to higher, drier ground. Many of these efforts have been stalled because there is little government support, on both the state and federal level, for the difficult and expensive task of relocating an entire town.
Three communities "have been desperately trying to relocate for decades," she said. "I'm just stunned by how challenging the relocation effort is."
Shrinking Arctic sea ice spells disaster
In her presentation, Bronen explained that global warming has had a more dramatic effect on Alaska than in the contiguous United States. Over the past 50 years, warming in the state has been double the global average, and by 2030 temperatures there could rise by up to 3 degrees Celsius.
As a result, the Arctic sea ice cover is shrinking at an unprecedented pace (ClimateWire, Dec. 6, 2012). Bronen reports that the permafrost that lies below many Native communities is melting away. According to a 2003 report by the Government Accountability Office, 184 out of 213 Alaska Native villages are affected by flooding and erosion.
In western Alaska, the Arctic sea ice serves as a barrier between coastal towns and hurricane-force storm surges originating in the Bering and Chukchi seas. But since the 1980s, the sea ice cover has been delayed by several weeks in autumn, leaving communities more vulnerable to extreme weather events (ClimateWire, Nov. 10, 2011).
This has resulted in a plethora of state and federal disaster declarations in indigenous communities, including one in August of last year. A record rainfall in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Kivalina flooded two nearby rivers, which flowed into a landfill and contaminated the town water supply. The state of Alaska declared a disaster emergency in the city on Aug. 20.
State support group gets dismantled
Rather than continue to struggle against storms, permafrost melt and erosion, Kivalina and three other Alaska Native villages -- Newtok, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik -- have all decided to relocate their communities in the past 10 years. But their attempts have been hindered by the difficulty of obtaining government approval or funding.
When Shishmaref and Kivalina decided on a new site for their villages, Alaskan government agencies rejected their proposal because they found the permafrost at the site was likely to melt in the near future.
In response to these challenges, the Alaskan government formed the Alaska Climate Change Impact Mitigation Program (ACCIMP) in 2008, which provides funding for a limited number of villages affected by climate change, including Shishmaref, Kivalina and Shaktoolik.
But the group that recommended the formation of the ACCIMP is no longer in place. The Immediate Action Workgroup was a multidisciplinary, intergovernmental group formed under then-Gov. Sarah Palin in 2007, responsible for assessing climate change impacts on Alaska's coastal communities. Gov. Sean Parnell did not reauthorize the group to continue its work in 2011, and it has not met since.
"The dismantling of the Immediate Action Workgroup creates a tremendous gap for communities faced with climate-related threats," Bronen states in her report.
Federal aid lacks a legal framework
But on a federal level, Bronen said, it is as if the issue doesn't exist.
"Our disaster relief legislation is really anachronistic," she said. "It does not allow communities to access disaster relief funding for a relocation effort."
Instead, federal agencies reserve their funding for protecting towns and cities that already exist, because "a relocation of this type has never occurred before," Bronen said. "We don't have a legal framework to use that money in a new place."
In the meantime, Newtok is the only community that has successfully identified a site to move to, but the process has been extremely slow. The city is forced to negotiate with 25 different government agencies to build the infrastructure necessary to support the community, like schools, medical facilities and an airstrip.
But erosion continues to threaten the town's water supply, and the Ninglick River is projected to reach the local school by 2017. In Bronen's report, she quotes Stanley Tom, a tribal administrator for the Newtok Traditional Council: "Getting funding takes time that we don't have. We can't keep up with the erosion."
Bronen called for Congress to form a government relocation framework at a federal level to prepare for more moves caused by climate change -- in Alaska and beyond.
"What's happening in Alaska is really relevant to coastal communities all over the United States," she said. "If the sea level is going to rise as the scientists predict, we need to think now of what we are going to do."