Residents of a small Alaskan island live on the front lines of climate change—and might have to change their way of life because of it.
This Alaska Community is Losing Sea Ice to Climate Change
Published: February 7, 2020
Kirk Johnson: This is Shishmaref, a small island off the northwest coast of Alaska.
You must be Kaare, yeah?
Kaare: Welcome to Shishmaref.
Johnson: This is our ride? All right, looks good to me.
This place really is the front line of climate change. This little coastal town in Alaska is only 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle. About 600 Inupiat people live here in Shishmaref, on the shore of the Chukchi Sea. Sea ice used to hug the shores of this remote island for 10 months of the year. This community depends on the ice to hunt for walrus and bearded seals for their food.
I’m here in summer, but summer’s getting longer, and, for people who depend on sea ice for their food, that’s a big problem.
What year were you born?
Clifford Weyiouanna: Nineteen-forty-two, born in a tent, five miles from here.
Johnson: Growing up, what do you remember about sea ice when you were a kid?
Weyiouanna: Well, all these years, you know, the sea ice was dependable. It used to get real thick, because it used to freeze before Thanksgiving. The sea ice has gotten thin and freezes later. Last year it froze in January. We had waves in January. And it doesn’t get thick at all. It breaks up fast.
Johnson: When’s the ice usually go melt off?
Weyiouanna: It used to melt off, end of June, because on my birthday, June 26th, me and my dad and grandpa we used to be hunting amongst the ice. Not anymore; it goes away June 6th, June 9th.
Johnson: When the ice is thin, it’s really dangerous for the hunters.
This is footage captured last winter by local drone pilot Dennis Davis. During the hunting season, he flies his drone to help the villagers find the safest path across the sea ice.
Dennis Davis: So, this was back, January 14th.
Johnson: There’s almost no ice at all.
Johnson: It’s like 50 feet of ice, not a mile or not 15 miles of ice.
Davis: This is as far as you can go. Look at this. We’ll zoom in. You can’t even see any ice out there. As far as you can see, there’s no ice. I mean there’s thin ice but there’s no real, real ice. All this ice out here, it’s supposed to be frozen solid, between three- and six-feet-thick.
Johnson: Is that a kind of unusual condition for January?
Davis: It’s starting to be a normal…
Davis: …where the ocean is open, when it’s supposed to be frozen.
Johnson: And it’s not just the ice that’s disappearing. The permafrost underneath this village is also thawing. Warmer oceans are creating more violent storms and without the sea ice to protect it, this coastline is now eroding fast, up to 50 feet in a single year.
Every now and then, another house falls into the sea. Mo Kiyutelluk’s house was very nearly one of them.
Hey, Mo. How’s it going, man?
Morris "Mo" Kiyutelluk: Hi.
Johnson: So this is the spot where the house used to be, huh?
Johnson: That was your house?
Kiyutelluk: There was permafrost under that, nothing but ice. Then the permafrost kept on melting. It, it just kept on falling over.
Johnson: How did they save your house?
Kiyutelluk: Whole town took part in pulling it.
Johnson: Were they pulling it by hand?
Kiyutelluk: Yeah, the whole town! And that kept it from toppling in.
Johnson: So, this is your house, huh?
Kiyutelluk: That’s the one.
Johnson: You saved it from the water, and you moved it a long ways away from the water.
Mo’s house may have been saved for now, but the elders realize that Shishmaref will eventually be swallowed by the sea. For the villagers, it will mean the old ways of walrus and seal hunting are fading.
They are planning to move to a new site on the mainland. Here, there are plenty of berries to pick; coastal hunters, turned gatherers.
It’s going to be a really different lifestyle for these guys.
Kaare: I think so, yeah.
Johnson: Shishmaref is just one example. Communities all over the Arctic will need to adapt to a different way of life.
Director: Lucy Haken
Assistant Producer: Sacha Thorpe
Digital Production: Noor Nasser
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2020