Climate change has finally caught up to this Alaska village

“Many folks are not happy to be leaving the place they’ve known their whole lives.” After 20 years of melting permafrost, residents of Newtok now must move.

By Craig Welch
photographs by Katie Orlinsky
Published 25 Oct 2019, 11:00 BST
Monica Kasayuli dries herring in Newtok before moving to the new village of Mertarvik.
Monica Kasayuli dries herring in Newtok before moving to the new village of Mertarvik.
Photograph by Katie Orlinsky, National Geographic

They've boxed their clothes and piled into boats and said goodbye to neighbours—for now.

This month, a pioneering group of residents from the Alaska village of Newtok finally began settling into a brand new town. In the process they have become some of North America's earliest climate change transplants.

Erosion has already wiped out nearly a mile of Newtok’s land, with thawing permafrost rapidly accelerating the loss.

The Yup'ik village of about 380 people on the Ninglick River near the Bering Sea has spent more than two decades preparing to move. Thawing permafrost and erosion has increased flooding risks and caused the land around their homes to crumble and sink. The community landfill has washed away, fuel storage tanks lean precariously, and some houses have already been torn down because they were in danger of collapsing.

(See how Arctic permafrost thaws and the damage it does.)

So, after years of planning and construction, families two weeks ago began arriving in the freshly minted village of Mertarvik, about 10 miles southeast on Nelson Island. During breaks in the high winds and heavy rains that lashed the Yukon Delta last week, 18 families made the move and began unpacking belongings in their newly built energy-efficient homes.

"We're moving, literally, in the calm between storms," says Andrew John, Newtok Village tribal administrator.

A few more families are expected to make the transition this week, but it will probably take until at least 2023 before enough homes are built for everyone. Until then the Mertarvik-Newtok will operate from two locations separated by water.

"It will be challenging, but this is a very strong community," says Gavin Dixon, a development manager with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium who is assisting Newtok residents with the move.

This is not the first time this community has had to relocate. In 1949 the Bureau for Indian Affairs (BIA) built schools in all Alaska Native communities after decades of forcing children to leave home to attend boarding schools. The BIA chose the site that is now Newtok.

A big thaw

For thousands of years, until the early 20th century, the Yup'ik were seasonally nomadic hunters who moved between camps as they hunted seals, moose, and musk oxen and gathered berries and wild greens. While this community still maintains a subsistence lifestyle, residents were forced in 1949 to settle in Newtok after the Bureau of Indian Affairs chose the site for a school without first seeking residents' input.

Since then, as climate change has warmed the planet, it has started thawing the frozen ground that sits below the surface across 9 million square miles of the far north. That is causing roads, pipelines, and building foundations to buckle while also releasing more greenhouse gases, which drives global temperature increases even higher. Meanwhile, as sea ice dwindles and moves offshore, storm surges are rushing up rivers, gnawing away at banks and splashing into communities. Rising seas accelerate this erosion.

As a result, Newtok residents for years have watched enormous chunks of once-stable soil crumble into the Ninglick, bringing the waters ever closer to homes, sometimes as much as 83 feet per year. Floods frequently leave households isolated. One study in the early 2000s showed vast sections of the town could become part of the river as early as 2027.

Children play on top of Newtok's aging water treatment facilities.

But as with many other isolated Alaskan communities facing similar problems, securing an alternative home and finding money to move has been a long process. And given Newtok's temporary status, agencies haven't been willing to invest in infrastructure in the meantime. So for decades, residents have lived without plumbing – instead gathering drinking water in jugs and using buckets for waste. The lack of proper sanitation has led to health problems, especially among infants.

In 2003 Congress finally agreed to create the new village of Mertarvik on higher, volcanic ground. In exchange, Newtok eventually will relinquish its lands to the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Since then, money slowly has come from state and federal agencies to build roads, a community centre, a landfill and a power station. A water treatment plant will be finished in a few weeks and a new school will be up and running in November. A landing strip is coming soon.

But only about a third of the 60 or so new homes that are needed have been built. They have electricity but don't yet have access to public water or sewer systems—the community first wanted to get as many homes built and occupied as possible. Getting money to install running water and sewerage could take many more years.

So for now, residents get to begin transforming Mertarvik into a new community—all while maintaining their old one several miles away.

A difficult move

It won't be simple. For now, some tribal officials will live in Mertarvik while others will remain in Newtok. There will be school teachers in each village, as well as a principal on each site. Some educating will be done via video.

But with 40 students in one community and 60 in the other, "half of their friends will be 10 miles away," Dixon says.

Emotions about all of this change are mixed. Newtok resident Martha Kasaiuli, 19, already has had her Newtok home demolished. Her family moved to Mertarvik last week, but she plans to remain on the other side of the water with friends for a few months. She expressed her thoughts in a poem, which reads in part:

The unwanted feelings about moving grow stronger.

However, staying here isn't fun though.

We will be moving to an unfamiliar place.

But this place will grow vacant as the years go by.

Dixon puts it this way: "Many folks are not happy to be leaving the place they've known their whole lives." But they are excited to finally be moving to a place with better services.

John says some residents are relieved while others feel anxious, and a few already experience separation anxiety. Some are too busy gathering food for winter to give it much thought.

The move might leave some residents a bit farther from traditional hunting grounds, "but frankly that's a small price to pay for the safety and security they will now have,” John says.

"I think as a people, our greatest attribute has been our ability to adapt," John says. "Our people have been flexible. We've found a way."

Or, as Kasaiuli sees it, "Our story is unfolding to a better ending, even if we don't want to leave this place."

An overview of Mertarvik, the new village site where the entire community of Newtok will ultimately relocate.
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