It Takes Global Warming to Move a Village

In 2002, the entire tiny Alaskan island village of Shishmaref (population: 600) voted to pick up and move to the Alaskan mainland. Considering the fact that villagers have lived on the island for 4,000 years—and that the move is expected to cost between $160 and $200 million—this was not an easy decision.

But according to a piece that appeared yesterday in Agence France Presse about the village’s pending move, it’s a necessary one. As the Arctic temperature climbs, the weather on the small island has become more and more extreme, destroying boats,houses, and buildings:

The village, at the tip of a 600-meter wide and five-kilometer long island, sits on frozen sand called "permafrost," which is vulnerable to erosion as temperatures rise.

"There is a significant warming in Alaska for at least 30 years. Air temperatures are increasing and temperature in permafrost is warming," said Vladimir Romanovsky, professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The thawing makes permafrost more vulnerable to floods triggered by melting ice-floes and glaciers that cause the sea to rise, he said.

To many Americans, Shishmaref might sound like a different planet: It’s freezing, it’s remote, and it’s really far away, both geographically and culturally. But as of August, the population of New Orleans was still less than half of what it was before the storm, and Lester Brown recently called the people that were displaced by Hurricane Katrina climate change "refugees.” Yesterday, The New York Times ran a piece about the areas in the U.S. that are most vulnerable to hurricanes.

In the coming years, moving because of global warming might begin to sound less and less exotic.