For more than two thousand years, the Yupik people have hunted and fished on the icy wilds of Alaska’s western coast, digging holes through the frozen sea to catch salmon and stickleback and communicating to one another in an ancient lexicon that includes dozens of ways to describe ice. Passed down from generation to generation, this linguistic adaptation has helped the Yupik to navigate safely as hunters, using specific terminology to describe the ice’s thickness and reliability. But with the advance of climate change, common Yupik words such as tagneghneq—used to describe dark, dense ice—are becoming obsolete as Alaska’s melting permafrost turns the once solid landscape into a mushy, sodden waste.
Recent scientific data confirms that the Arctic—the world’s air-conditioning system—is warming twice as fast as any other place on the planet, with the average winter temperature having risen 6.3ºC over the past fifty years. Alaska’s soaring temperatures are caused by a perfect storm of confluence. When solar radiation hits snow and ice, most of it is reflected back into space.
But as warming global temperatures encourage ice to melt, the exposed land absorbs the radiation, prompting yet more ice to melt. Now the people of Alaska—85 percent of whom live along the coast—are among the first Americans to feel the effects of climate change as the ground beneath them melts and gives way. This year, 31 native communities across Alaska are contemplating their imminent destruction because of the dependence on fossil fuel emissions of their fellow citizens farther south. These shrinking communities are confronting an impossible choice: to find tens of millions of dollars to uproot their centuries-old traditions and move their homes—and the bones of their ancestors—to higher ground; or to stay and use their limited resources to build a bulwark against the sea.
Daunted by the cost of the latter, and with little in federal assistance, many are choosing to leave. In August 2016, the residents of Shishmaref, an Inupiat community north of the Bering Strait, voted to relocate their entire community from their barrier island, which has for decades been disappearing into the sea. Some experts warn that many coastal Alaskan villages will be completely uninhabitable by 2050, the year when my eldest grandson, Rory, and his burdened generation may be forced to reckon with the challenge of housing tens of millions of climate refugees.
Life in Alaska is defined by the cold, by the land, and by the people’s relationship to the sea. To fish and to hunt is to live and breathe, and the rapid melting of the ice is causing many indigenous Alaskans to question their cultural identity.
Nobody knows this crisis more viscerally than Patricia Cochran, who has for 30 years been working with communities across Alaska and the Arctic to help them deal with the ravages of climate change. Patricia is executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, but she is also a native Alaskan and Inupiat, born and raised in the coastal town of Nome, formerly a mining center. Patricia grew up in a traditional Inupiat home, setting out across the tundra for fish camp every year and scrambling along the rocky coast with her siblings in the late-summer months, foraging for cranberries, nagoonberries, and herbs.
“It has taken science a very long time to catch up to what our communities have been saying for decades,” Patricia observes. “For at least the last forty or fifty years, our communities have noticed the subtlest of changes because they live very closely tied to the land. They see the changes happening in the environment around them. We were seeing the signs of climate change long before researchers and other scientists even started using those words.”
As a scientist, Patricia is well aware that the changes she and her community have been observing are not caused by the Inupiat community. They are at the mercy of industrial policy based on fossil fuels in the rest of the United States.
In 2015, Patricia participated in Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit in New York. Sitting beneath the bright stage lights, Patricia was cosseted in her native Inupiat dress hemmed with white fur and woven with intricate bright flowers. When asked to speak about the effects of climate change in Alaska, Patricia politely demurred and asked first that she be able to perform some protocols.
This was an unusual break in the closely managed event. “In our community, it is really important to follow those protocols,” Patricia said in her poised and gentle voice, “to remember where we come from, and why we are the people that we are.”
Invoking a centuries-old Inupiat tradition, Patricia then paid homage to the elders in the audience, our collective ancestors, and to those indigenous people on whose Manhattan homelands we stood. This unexpected and humbling meditation shifted the energy and caused a spontaneous ripple of applause in the room. Her Inupiat ancestors petitioned, she then got down to business. “In the Arctic we have been facing these issues for many, many years. Climate change is more than just a discussion for us. It is a reality. It is something that we live with and face every single day and have for decades.”
As a child growing up in Nome, Patricia remembers the snow lying thick on the ground most of the year, and the sea—a single block of ice—stretching far towards the horizon late into the summer months. The winters were long and brutal, the summers exceedingly brief. But over time, the winters began to arrive later and to rush prematurely into spring. Now, when Patricia returns to visit her childhood home, the vast expanse of ice is gone, replaced instead by an open glistening sea.
“We have had to build a seawall in Nome because the sea ice that used to sit in front of our villages is no longer there,” she said. “That ice used to keep us safe. We have had so much rain that our fish will not dry on our fish racks. We have had such warm weather throughout the summer that berries have ripened twice in the season. Most worrying, the changing ice conditions have caused extreme erosion, flooding, and permafrost degradation across the entire community.”
Permafrost, the permanently frozen sublayer of soil that has anchored Alaska for thousands of years, provides a foundation for homes, schools, and roads, and keeps the rising sea at bay. But mounting temperatures throughout the Arctic are causing this prehistoric underpinning to melt, turning the soil soggy, and releasing yet more carbon dioxide into the air. As the cycle continues, and the warming earth buckles and bends, the houses of Alaska’s indigenous people sink and topple into the sea. As the dwindling permafrost exposes the soil, and the offshore ice that normally buffers the villages from storms decreases, the sea advances, eating away at the land. In the late summer, increasingly fierce storms, the results of climatic shifts, batter the coast, eroding the topsoil until it crumbles into the sea. In some places, villages have lost up to 100 feet of land per year.
The changing weather patterns and disappearing ice consume not just the land; ice conditions across Alaska are shifting so rapidly that even Alaska’s best hunters and most experienced sailors can no longer adequately predict the weather, wind, or hunting conditions.
“We are losing people who are venturing out on snowmobiles to areas where the ice is thin,” Patricia cautions. “There is truthfully not one of us who hasn’t had an uncle or a friend who has gone out fishing and never returned home again.”
This rising death toll has caused some hunters to abandon their snowmobiles and return to more traditional ways of life to help them better navigate the wild. “Many have gone back to using dog teams,” said Patricia. “The dogs are very smart and will not venture out onto thin ice. A snow machine will not do that for you. My young nephews are now using these traditional ways that have kept us alive for so many years.”
Combining scientific expertise with her innate traditional knowledge, Patricia works to help communities across Alaska that are relocating, or those who have decided to stay. The latter are designated “protect in place,” and Patricia helps these dogged communities stem the tide against the encroaching sea, knowing in many instances that their villages are already doomed.
When Patricia is not travelling across Alaskan airspace to meet with native communities in remote areas, she travels to the Lower 48 to lecture about climate change in her community.
It is uphill work. “I spend a lot of time convincing other people of the issues that we see here in the Arctic,” she says. “To many of the audiences that I speak to in the United States, this issue is still something new. It never ceases to amaze me that there are people who don’t believe in climate change. I try to tell stories so that these audiences will have a different frame of reference and understand that these are other human beings. I’m trying to get them to see what is on their horizon.”
Alaska’s fight against the effects of climate change has a wider lesson for the rest of the United States. The searing heat that made 2016 the hottest year ever recorded continued unabated into 2017, causing unprecedented temperature rises across the world, polar melting, and rapidly rising seas. If America cannot effectively marshal enough resources to help tiny communities along Alaska’s submerging coast to relocate, what will happen when the truly cataclysmic effects of climate change come? Climate change experts predict that by 2100, sea levels could rise high enough to submerge 12.5 percent of Florida’s homes.
In a paper published in 2017, U.S. researchers outlined how, between 2011 and 2015, the sea level along America’s southeastern coastline rose six times faster than the long-term rate of global increase. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey devastated the city of Houston, but other cities in the United States—Boston, New York, Atlantic City, Tampa, Miami—are vulnerable to the fiercer storms and sea level rise fuelled by climate change. FEMA, the federal agency that deals with disaster relief, is pushing communities to deal with climate change, but the federal government itself has no relocation plans, and there is no political will or funding to help communities such as Newtok or Shishmaref move away from disaster zones.
“What we are seeing here in the Arctic we know is a harbinger of what is to come for the rest of the world, and for the rest of the United States,” Patricia says. “I want to convince those coastal communities in Florida, New York, and California that they should be concerned, because climate projections show that those communities are going to be facing the same kind of issues that we are dealing with here now. To me it is just logical that you would want to have as much information as you can about what you can safely predict in the future.”
Excerpt from Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, published by Bloomsbury Publishing.