Newtok is a 40 minute flight from Bethel, the hub city of the lower Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. This land is far from the “road system,” so travel is either by plane, boat, or snow-mobile. From the window of a small prop plane, I gazed down at the abstract landscape of dark water carving through vibrant green tundra, speckled with browns and pinks of the coastal tundra ecosystem. Countless lakes reflected cartoon clouds and vast blue sky.
With a swooping motion, the plane declined towards the tundra and Newtok came into sight. Square-framed buildings with colorful tin roofs sprawled at the edge of the Ninglick River, connected by a web of boardwalk. The tide was out and a slight breeze rustled tall, riparian grasses. It seemed so tranquil, but I wasn’t naive to the “mammoth on the tundra.” As an intern with Bethel Community Services Foundation, I was well-read on the issues facing Newtok. The village is located on a cut-bank of the Ninglick river and as far back as the early 1990s, Newtok’s residents anticipated that the village’s infrastructure would be threatened by the encroaching river. As time passes, the rate of erosion increases. Winters are shorter and less cold than usual, and the permafrost (layer of frozen tundra underground), which give the land some structure has become more malleable to the strong river current.
As I stood at the steep, gouged bank of the Ninglick River, a local woman pointed out into the distance and remembered when she was a girl playing behind her grandparents house. The river was so far from town you had to squint to see it. Her grandparents home is now expected to lose its foundation to the river within the next two years as the warming permafrost makes the banks more susceptible to erosion.
This situation places an immense emotional toll on people in the village. There is uncertainty in the future: When the river will reach my house? When will the next flood overflow the landfill and bring water and trash into homes? Will the new site across the bay be ready for the village to relocate in case of an emergency? In addition to the nagging uncertainties, there is solastalgia: the mental or existential distress caused by changes in a familiar environment, perhaps not just change but disappearance! The phrase was published in a report by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services on the impacts of climate change. The word came to mind when I heard Newtok’s Tribal administrator, Andrew John, reminisce about how his childhood play areas were all gone, covered in water.
Relocation is underway, meaning infrastructure is being designed and constructed across the bay at the new site called Mertarvik, but the process takes a lot of time, energy, and money. Momentum is building as partners from federal and state agencies, as well as regional and local organizations, join in the effort to relocate Newtok. The plight of this coastal village is well known around the state- as many other villages face exponential land loss to erosion. However, most of our nation does not know about the struggle of places like this– or about the culture and people in danger. Yet, this is a story that has resounding impacts across the nation and world. It’s true that rivers are always eroding, depositing, eroding, depositing… but climate change magnifies this process with rising sea levels, stronger storm gales, and thawing permafrost.
Talk of relocating cities like Miami 15 or 20 years from now seems daunting and rather futuristic. But the struggle is happening now, and small under-represented communities in rural Alaska are on the front-lines of this battle. This is our chance as a nation to talk about how we’re going to support communities through the process with federal disaster relief funding, resiliency efforts, and compassionate relocation options. The story of Newtok (…Shishmaref, Kivalina, Shaktoolik…) is a story of human adaptation and pulling together as people to work around a rapidly changing environment. We are writing this story as we speak. Partners from various levels of government (including tribes), nonprofits, research organizations, and the media, are actively working to solve this problem in rural Alaska. Citizens from faraway places (even I, the next town over, feel far removed) can take part by staying educated on climate policy, following what entities are doing to provide support, donating to resiliency efforts, and bringing this topic into their own social circles.
This isn’t just the relocation of 300 people, it’s the continuance of a culture, traditional knowledge, and a lifestyle– and the beginning of a new age of innovative, adaptation strategies for all.
— Kate McWilliams, Community Development Intern, Bethel Community Services Foundation