A Sinking Village Trying To Escape Climate Change Is Stuck In A Quagmire

The struggles of the Alaskan town of Newtok show how difficult it can be to adapt to even urgent threats from global warming.

A Sinking Village Trying To Escape Climate Change Is Stuck In A Quagmire
Polar Bear via Shutterstock

Most people think moving to a new house is a hassle. Relocating an entire village is a whole lot harder.


That’s what the 350 or so native Alaskans who live in the village of Newtok have been attempting in recent years, as the effects of climate change have caused their land to erode and sink from under them. Now, as The Guardian reports, local political infighting and difficulties locking down the tens of millions of dollars required for the move have essentially ground the relocation effort to a halt.

Every year of delay in constructing the new village site nine miles to the south on higher ground matters for Newtok’s residents. The town’s highest point today–the school–could be underwater as soon as 2017, according to a study (pdf) from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

What’s also concerning about Newtok’s struggle to save itself is what this portends for other places that face imminent threats from climate change, including an estimated 180 or so other Alaskan villages. From The Guardian:

Many villages, like Newtok, are losing land to erosion. The Ninglick river, which encircles Newtok is eating the land out from under the village. Others are sinking in the melting permafrost. A handful have started the process of relocation. But none had gone as far as Newtok in finding a new site, and beginning the slow and laborious process of negotiating through the web of state agencies to find funds for their relocation.

Robin Bronen, a human rights lawyer in Anchorage, has argued extensively that the federal government’s failure to recognise slow-moving climate threats as disasters leaves such communities stranded, with no clear set of guidelines – or designated funds – to secure their communities in place, or plan a move.

If it is this difficult to move even a tiny village further inland, one has also got to question the hurdles in store for much larger-scale climate change “adaptation” plans in cities like New York or London. There’s clearly no talk yet of moving any New Yorkers, but in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is suddenly looking to spend $20 billion to build an entire system of levees, movable flood walls and a full-fledged “Seaport City” to protect flood-prone neighborhoods from future disasters.

Unlike the sinking village of Newtok, New York has more time to plan and build defensive measures against sea-level rise and harsher storms. But any ambitious urban infrastructure project would need all the time it can get to make it past bureaucratic and financial hurdles. Just ask the New Yorkers still waiting for the Second Avenue subway to be finished. It has been under various stages of planning since 1929 and is still under construction today.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.