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Environment

This Alaska Town Is Falling Into the Ocean Thanks to Climate Change

AP Photo/Al Grillo, File

Climate change is spurring sea levels to rise all around the world, but few places are as threatened as coastal Alaska, where whole villages are being swallowed by the Pacific and Arctic oceans.

For the people of Newtok, Alaska, in the western part of the state, the ground they live on is literally being pulled into the ocean at a rate of around 70 feet per year. The stilts that houses relied upon in the past to survive high tides are becoming increasingly ineffective.

The town has already lost its barge, sewage lagoon, and landfill, according to NPR, and it will soon lose its primary source of drinking water, school, and airport. It’s only a matter of time before their town is submerged and families are expelled from their homes.

Most of the people of Newtok are a part of the Yup’ik tribe, and have deep roots in the region. They don’t want to leave, but they realize they will soon have no choice. When that happens, few people have the means necessary to adequately relocate and start anew somewhere else.

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"We just need to get out of there," says Romy Cadiente, the village relocation coordinator, in an interview with NPR. "For the safety of the 450 people there."

A site has been chosen for a full-scale relocation. Tentative construction has begun, but there remains a huge funding gap.

The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that the town will need $80 million to $130 million to move key infrastructure.

So the community is calling on the Obama administration to declare the Newtok’s climate predicament a disaster, which would unlock special funds for the relocation of climate refugees.

Earlier last year, the US’s first climate refugees began to resettle. They, too, were Native Americans who happen to live on land susceptible to coastal erosion. And they, too, have spent generations on the land.

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The federal government allocated $48 million to relocate the 60 or so inhabitants of the Isle de Charles off the coast of Louisiana.

The government has around $1 billion set aside to help states cope with the effects of climate change and the people of Newtok are hoping to access some of this money.

Normally, areas affected by climate change would have to go through other channels to receive funding, but a special designation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, gave Native tribes the right to request intervention from the president himself.

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The Yup’ik people want to stay together to preserve their culture and language, but this will only happen if they are allowed to move as a community, guided with federal assistance.

Incoming president Donald Trump hasn’t shown much sympathy for climate change, which is why Cadiente and the Yup’ik are counting on Obama.

The years ahead will only bring more climate disasters to the attention of the president and FEMA, and the stability of more and more lives will hang in the balance.

Since 2008, 21.5 million people each year have been displaced by climate- or weather-related events around the world, with the bulk of those displaced living in South or East Asia.

It’s projected that the US will be relatively unaffected by climate change compared to other countries around the world, but that doesn’t mean the country will go unscathed. Landscapes are already changing in irrevocable, life-changing ways.

The relocation of Newtok could provide a useful template for adaptation — but time is running out.