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As water levels rise, this Alaska town is fleeing to higher ground

Rising sea levels will threaten three times more people in the next 30 years than previously thought, according to the latest scientific estimates. Among the hundreds of millions of people worldwide facing the threat are the 400 residents of Newtok, Alaska. Rising river and eroding land is pushing the entire community to relocate, despite emotional and logistical hurdles. Stephanie Sy reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week has brought another alarming milestone. Global greenhouse gas emissions hit a record level again last year.

    As those heat-trapping gases increase, the Earth warms, melting even the thick ice in the Arctic that's supposed to remain permanently frozen. As a result, rising seas could threaten hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including in a small Alaskan village.

    Stephanie Sy has the story of that village and its efforts to adapt.

    It's part of our series on the Leading Edge of science, health and technology.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    More than two decades ago, the Yupik of Newtok, Alaska voted to move to a new land. With the Earth warming, the permafrost their village sat on was melting, while rising seas were making the Ninglick River rise and erode the riverline and coastline, on average, 70 feet a year.

    In early October, the first Yupik started moving to their new town, Mertarvik, located along a hillside of a volcanic island from where the Ninglick meets the Bering Sea. The new place is close, only nine miles away, but the journey was long and, as relocation coordinator Romy Cadiente describes, arduous.

  • Romy Cadiente:

    Getting all of the material, equipment, people, food, everything that's associated with construction, the whole logistics, the whole planning of this move was really challenging for everybody.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Without a federal policy for relocating people affected by climate change, the Yupik sought various funding sources, and the military helped build some of the houses.

    The first prototype house was erected in 2016, and 17 families have now moved into new abodes. They are improvements to what they and many other rural Alaskans have had, with proper running water and sewage, replacing the so-called honey buckets that made living in Newtok less than sanitary.

    The community collaborated with outside groups, including the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, to design and engineer a village that would continue their culture of subsistence living off the land.

    Cadiente says the fishing is better near Mertarvik.

  • Romy Cadiente:

    The folks didn't want to get integrated into another village or move, because they have been around this area for hundreds of years.

    They know where to fish, when the fish is running. They know where to hunt, when it's that time of the year. So, just keeping their subsistence livelihood intact, together with their culture, we wanted to keep that alive for them.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The houses are more sustainable, harnessing renewable energy, and, with them, the Yupik enter a new future, one that they hope is healthier, and safer.

  • Romy Cadiente:

    It's heartbreaking to see a home, you know, that is almost being lost to the river, just scared families that don't know or don't — and then you keep their tradition. You keep their identity.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Climate refugees, they have been called, but also survivors, and, in a way, pioneers.

    The resettlement of the Yupik people has drawn in local, state and federal agencies from different fields and is far from over.

    One of the organizations helping to manage the relocation effort is the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Gavin Dixon is the community development manager for that group and joins me now from Anchorage.

    Gavin, you were in Mertarvik recently. Give us an idea of how people are settling in.

  • Gavin Dixon:

    We have got about 18 families moved in out there. And people are settling into their new homes and, you know, getting used to more space in a new location.

    And I think people are starting to embrace their new home.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How long will it take to fully relocate and resettle the entire community from Newtok?

  • Gavin Dixon:

    It depends a little bit on when investment comes for additional housing and infrastructure in Mertarvik.

    But we're forecasting, by 2023 relocating the entire population of Newtok to the new site.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    There are communities around the country and the world, as you know, facing tough questions about whether to stay in flood-prone areas or relocate.

    Where do you see that Yupik relocation model fitting into the national conversation?

  • Gavin Dixon:

    Well, I think Newtok is a community that's moving early, and doing it in advance of the impacts of erosion. They're not the only community in rural Alaska.

    There are many other communities, at least 12 other communities, that are likely to face either a partial or full relocation due to the impacts of flooding and erosion. But there's a lot more people in this country and all over the world that face the same threats.

    And it's not easy to move. And it's not just the challenges from a personal level are very serious. The challenges from a technical design and construction level, especially in the Arctic and especially in rural Alaska, are very complicated.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What other challenges came out of this process of relocation that would be informative to other communities facing the same fate with climate change approaching?

  • Gavin Dixon:

    I think some of the decisions that have been the most challenging are, how do you relocate, and then — and how do you plan for something that happens slowly?

    A lot of times, when a community faces a disaster, it's an event. It's a tornado. It's a hurricane. It's an earthquake. And the effort to rebuild is based on that specific event. But what happens when it's a slow-moving disaster, like erosion or persistent flooding? And how do you plan for addressing a disaster like that?

    And so Newtok has put a lot of effort into planning on a long time scale, what it's like to relocate the community, how they do it, what's the highest priority.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How much did the people, the Yupik people, contribute to building this new community?

  • Gavin Dixon:

    An incredible amount.

    More than half the construction crew has been a local work force out there. And the community has also put every dollar that they can — they can scrounge, from every funding source they can imagine, including their own tribally generated revenues, into building more housing for their people.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    How much time do the folks that are still in Newtok have to relocate before their homes disappear into the sea?

  • Gavin Dixon:

    In 2019, seven homes would have gone into the Ninglick River, if they had not been demolished in advance of the advancing erosion.

    Those homes, those residents have already relocated to the new site, but more homes lie in the way of the erosion that's encroaching about 60 feet a year. The folks closest to the erosion have less time than others.

    We expect there's about four houses that could be potentially impacted in 2020. We expect that the school, which is really a central pillar of the community, will be impacted as soon as 2021 or 2022. And the airport, which is the community's primary transportation access, would be impacted by 2023.

    One of the core tenets of the culture in Newtok is adaptability. And I think that's a really important value that their community and their culture maintains to deal with a threat like climate change, a changing environment.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Gavin Dixon, the community development manager with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Gavin, thank you so much.

  • Gavin Dixon:

    Thank you.

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