Relocating the Native Village of Shishmaref, Alaska Due to Coastal Erosion

Created: 12/18/2010 - Updated: 2/08/2018

Summary

The Native Village of Shishmaref is located on Sarichef Island in the Chukchi Sea. This barrier island is highly vulnerable to coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, and flooding. Relocation efforts have been underway since 2001; a lack of funding has delayed the process and the people and infrastructure remain at risk.

Background

Shishmaref, Alaska is located on a ¼ mile-wide and three-mile long barrier island (Sarichef Island) in the Chukchi Sea. Shishmaref, inhabited for over 4,000 years, is a federally-recognized traditional Inupiat Eskimo village, which leads a fishing and subsistence lifestyle. This barrier island is incredibly susceptible to loss of property, infrastructure, and life due to coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, and flooding issues.

The sea icepack that typically develops in the fall buffers the village and shoreline from coastal storms. Reduced sea ice along the coast due to rising air and water temperatures is allowing for stronger storm surges to reach the shoreline, which is already destabilized by melting permafrost. There are estimates of approximately three to five feet of erosion per year on the shoreline with more severe erosion rates during the coastal storms of 1973, 1997, and 2001. In 1997, more than 30 feet of shoreline eroded, requiring the immediate relocation of 14 homes; five more homes were moved a few years later. The Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition was created in 2001 to address the immediate and future threats posed by erosion and flooding to the village. Continuous storms and erosion events encouraged residents to vote to relocate the village in 2002.

Implementation

The Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition created a strategic plan for relocation in 2002 and the village has been seeking funds and support to move forward with relocation since.

In 2004, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a cost analysis for the relocation of Shishmaref. The alternative courses of action studied and costs estimated included: Staying in Place ($110 million), Relocating to a New Site ($180 million), Collocating to Nome ($94 million), and Collocating to Kotzebue ($141 million). Collocating or merging with other villages may be cheaper than relocation but the risk is high that the village’s lifestyle and culture will be lost. With these estimates, the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition decided to continue with their relocation efforts. These relocation estimates were further supported by a 2006 Army Corps of Engineers’ erosion study on Alaskan communities, including Shishmaref. This assessment (Alaska Village Erosion Technical Assistance Program) determined that the estimated cost of moving Shishmaref is $100-200 million and that the village has 10-15 years before existing locations are overcome by erosion and flooding problems. In December 2006, an inland location, Tin Creek, was approved as the new site during a public meeting; despite consensus, many problems have arisen in the Shishmaref relocation process.

Relocation efforts are limited for many native communities due to the massive costs associated with relocating and building new infrastructure; economic assistance is required from external sources to facilitate these efforts but so far, Shishmaref has been largely unsuccessful in securing funding to move to Tin Creek. One critical need is funding for a feasibility study to ensure that Tin Creek is appropriate for relocation; there is some concern about melting permafrost and distance from the ocean (i.e., for fishermen and subsistence hunters). In the meantime, ongoing shoreline protection and hardening measures are being funded by state and federal agencies for the village that are incredibly costly(e.g., 200’ rip rap seawall at $2.2 million in 2004; $6.5 million for more seawall construction in 2007).

Outcomes and Conclusions

Shishmaref continues to apply for state and federal funding to support capacity building and technical assistance to facilitate the relocation process. While continuing to apply for grants, Shishmaref is also developing a series of emergency preparedness and response plans as called for in the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet Immediate Action Workgroup’s 2008 report, Recommendations Report to the Governor’s Sub-cabinet on Climate Change, in case funding cannot be found to support relocation.

Status

Information collected through publications. Last updated December 2010.

Citation

Gregg, R. M. (2010). Relocating the Native Village of Shishmaref, Alaska Due to Coastal Erosion [Case study on a project of the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition]. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. Retrieved from CAKE: www.cakex.org/case-studies/relocating-native-village-shishmaref-alaska-d... (Last updated December 2010)

Project Contacts

Shishmaref is located on Sarichef Island, in the Chukchi Sea, just north of Bering Strait. Shishmaref is five miles from the mainland, 126 miles north of Nome and 100 miles southwest of Kotzebue. The village is surrounded by the 2.6 million-acre Bering Land Bridge National Reserve. It is part of the Beringian National Heritage Park, endorsed by Presidents Bush and Gorbachev in 1990. It lies at approximately 66.256670° North Latitude and -166.07194° West Longitude. (Sec. 23, T010N, R035W, Kateel River Meridian.) Shishmaref is located in the Cape Nome Recording District.

The Alaska District is a full service district with three major programs: military construction, civil works development, and environmental cleanup/restoration activities. We also have significant programs functions in contracting, operations and maintenance, real estate and Clean Water Act and navigation regulation activities. Our programs are highly visible in the military and local communities and are deep seated in Alaskan history. We have extensive expertise in cold regions engineering.

Keywords

Scale of Project: 
Tribal / First Nation
Sector Addressed: 
Climate Justice
Development (socioeconomic)
Disaster Risk Management
Fisheries
Public Health
Rural / Indigenous Livelihoods
Transportation / Infrastructure
Water Resources
Target Climate Changes and Impacts: 
Air temperature
Culture / communities
Economics
Erosion
Infrastructure damage
Permafrost
Public health risks
Public safety threats
Sea level rise
Snowpack
Storms or extreme weather events
Water temperature
Climate Type: 
Polar
Subpolar
Timeframe: 
Ongoing
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy: 
Capacity Building
Design or reform institutions
Create new institutions
Infrastructure, Planning, and Development
Managed retreat of built infrastructure, relocation of people/communities
Develop disaster preparedness plans and policies
Governance and Policy
Sociopolitical Setting: 
Rural
Effort Stage: 
In progress