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Climate refugees – or cultural refugees?

In 2007 the natives of a small island in the Pacific called Tuvalu, began calling themselves the first climate refugees…

Then in 2009, there was the underwater convention in the Maldives

In 2012, the village of Selawik in northwest Alaska became known as the “Venice of the North…

And in 2013,  articles are now being written on other settlements in Alaska such as Kivalina and Newtok

All are claiming to be the first climate change refugees, and all claim they want funding to move.

It is dangerous waters I venture into with this article! I’m not going to wade into the politics, cost or the how the relocation of the refugees is going to happen. I just want to raise some issues that make sure these mistakes aren’t repeated with respect to relocation – because as you will see, some of these costly relocation are not going to be any better!

A brief comment on the Pacific Islands…

There is no doubt the original Polynesians set forth into the Pacific when the El Nino blew, and they found a myriad of islands between a few hundred and a few thousand years ago. They weren’t high islands – even back then, but they settled on them. The life cycle of an atoll in the Pacific is not long as far as geologists are concerned – a volcano peeks through the surface of the ocean, a coral reef develops around the volcano, and then the soft but fertile rocks of the volcano erode once the volcano stops building up. Eventually all that is left is a low lying coral atoll. Islands such as Hawaii will only be above sea for maybe 2 million years from Mauna Loa magnificence to a dwindling, weathered relict like Ni’ihua. It’s a bit unfortunate that many of the Pacific islands were inhabited towards the end of the life cycle of a coral atoll, and as the islands continue to face the twin ravages of erosion and rising sea levels, it will become increasingly difficult for the Pacific islanders to survive on these islands.

A more detailed comment on the Alaskan ‘climate refugees…’

Alaskan villagesBut the claims of the Alaskan Eskimo’s to be the first climate refugee’s? I think that is misleading – I think these people are cultural refugee’s. In 2012, Selawik hit the headlines with a jumbled landscape of houses and infrastructure that were sinking into the ground. The permafrost is melting and draining away. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but… step back slightly and look at the Google Earth picture of where Selawik is located – in the middle of a marsh! As you can see from the aerial viewpoint, it is a tiny little town surrounded by a 1000 lakes in an area which is the delta for the Selawik River. SelawikI don’t doubt that the houses are sinking, but how much of that is due to it being a settlement in a marsh? More damning evidence comes from the NANA Regional Corporation website which describes Selawik as a former WINTER camp for the Eskimo, as well a year round source for fresh water fish. The Eskimo’s only began to live there permanently in the late 1800’s. Let’s just park our thoughts so far on Selawik for a moment and move on.

In 2013, two more villages have apparently succumbed to climate change and warming trends. Newtok is in such dire straights, the highest point sits on poles and the entire village is in danger of sinking beneath sea level within the next few years. This village was in the process of moving, but funds have dried up. Their very pressing problem aside, let’s take a birdseye view of their village:


Newtok is located further south, so its going to be in slightly warmer climes to begin with. But like Selawik, it to is located on the the marshy fringes near a river mouth. Not a river that has silted up like Selawik, but nonetheless, Newtok is located on a very generously large bend in the Ninglick River with an overly far-ranging floodplain filled with little lakes. It should also be noted that if you zoom out further, the Ninglick River is actually located in the very large delta of the even larger Yukon River. Newtok was first noted by the USGS to be settled in 1949, after the villagers had to move because their previous village was being destroyed by seasonal flooding of the Ninglick River . You can see how the river has been cutting into this town since the 1990’s with this 2007 article from the BBC.

And finally, lets turn to our final victim in today’s tale; Kivalina. Kivalina is built on a barrier island at, you guessed it, the end of the large river, the Kivalina River. Barrier Islands are not exactly ephemeral, but they aren’t geomorphic structures that last very long either. A few decades is good… But it’s only going to take one or two decent storms and whhosh! – the barrier island is gone. Because they are ephemeral (on a geologic time scale), they don’t build up very much above sea level (unless the circumstances that favoured building a barrier island in the first place, change to building land). kivalinaKivalina was located to its current location in 1905, although there were recordings of Kivalina eskimo’s in the area in the mid-1800’s. Apparently it was located here because the Bureau of Indian Affair mistook a seasonal camp for a permanent camp.

What can we gain from knowing this?

So, from what is written above and with the links to more information about these towns we can glean a few things:

  1. All these towns are located at or near the mouths (or delta’s) of very large rivers.
  2. All of these towns have only been established in their current locations in the last 50-120 years.
  3. Until the towns were ‘permanently’ settled, they were seasonal sites for the native people.
  4. Newtok has already been shifted once in the last century due to flooding by the nearby Ninglick River.

From looking into the history and location of these towns, climate change is NOT the driving factor behind the reasons the residents of these towns need to be relocated – and that is what I don’t like! Blaming climate change is not good enough because it means the towns will just be relocated back ‘far enough that sea level change won’t effect them.’ But that is flawed planning.

Future planning needs to take into account several things:

  1. Historically, these locations were seasonal sites for the natives. These sites are frozen for approximately 9 months of the year and the ground is stable during that time. But even before climate change became a buzz word, the top few meters of ground melted every year because temperatures rise above freezing during the summer months, often to over 20oC. I am trying to make the point here that permanent settlements should never have been built at these locations to begin with!
  2. If the native people choose to no longer live a nomadic lifestyle, then these towns needs to be relocated somewhere that won’t be immediately prone to meandering river currents, flood plain and changing ocean currents and seasonal melting of the topsoil.
  3. And to do (1) means acknowledging a very major cultural shift in the thinking of the native people.
  4. Furthermore, if the native people choose to have more permanent settlements and not migrate between seasonal hunting grounds, then the question needs to be raised as to whether the places where they can be relocated to are suitable for them to sustain themselves – or will they be even more reliant on ‘external sources of financial assistance to survive?’

I note that the government in Alaska is trying to relocate the native people in many coastal and near-coastal villages, but claiming they are ‘climate refugee’s’ is misleading (although it seems to be the only way these increasingly desperate villagers can get a voice in the matter). Furthermore, the nebulous plans for the most part are all still going to result in the villages having to be relocated in the next 50-100 years, presumably at ever greater costs.

I have always maintained that climate change has largely become an ‘issue’ for the human race because in the last few 1000 years, we’ve gone from being nomads roaming to where food was plentiful, to settling into one location, and generally those locations are close to water sources and coastal regions. Yes, think about it – it’s only taken us a few short centuries to go from nomads to having megalopolises with millions of people near the coasts of most continents! The people of Alaska, and to a lesser extent, the Polynesian islands, are the first to have to seriously rethink the location of their villages. Nothing in nature is permanent, and water is ever changing, ever moving – be it in rivers, oceans or frozen. We think we ‘tame’ the land, but 100 years is nothing in geologic time, and the native people of Alaska have only had a few decades to even get a taste of a non-nomadic lifestyle before finding out that they were nomadic by necessity due to the harsh and extreme environment they live and choose to live in.

I don’t have the solution – but I think some very tough questions have been raised. If Alaska can view these issues the same way, instead of continually perpetuating the endless troubles of village relocation in unsuitable areas, they may provide us with a blueprint for how to adapt our own cities in the future as nature overtakes us.

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