Relocating the Native Village of Shishmaref, Alaska Due to Coastal Erosion
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, however, a lack of funding has delayed the process and people and infrastructure remain at risk.
Shishmaref, Alaska is located on Sarichef Island, a ¼ mile-wide and three-mile-long barrier island in the Chukchi Sea. Shishmaref, inhabited for over 4,000 years, is a federally-recognized traditional Inupiat Eskimo village of approximately 600 residents, 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. 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 have been observed. 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 first vote to relocate the village in 2002.
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 2007, an inland location, Tin Creek, was approved as the new site during a public meeting, but melting permafrost and distance from the ocean (i.e. for fishermen and subsistence hunters) remained major concerns.
Shishmaref participated in a planning process through the Alaska Climate Change Impact Mitigation Program, which provides technical assistance to communities. The 2014–2016 Alaska Community Coastal Protection Project focused on developing community resilience plans for Kivalina, Shishmaref, and Shaktoolik. This effort was funded through the Alaska Coastal Impact Assistance Program in partnership with the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs. An Inter-Agency Planning Work Group was established during this effort to support the implementation of several priority actions from the 2016 Shishmaref Strategic Management Plan. The plan classifies actions as imminent (e.g., urgent actions needed immediately) and critical (e.g., actions needed within five years). Imminent actions include conducting a relocation site feasibility study and emergency drills and exercises. Critical actions include water and sewer upgrades, constructing an evacuation center, conducting a coastal flooding analysis, installing a seawall, increasing the use of traditional ecological knowledge in decision making, and investing in local leadership development programs.
The Shishmaref Relocation Site Feasibility Study was completed in 2016 with a grant from the Division of Community and Regional Affairs. The study evaluated five options—(1) Protect-in-Place, (2) West Nunatuq, (3) Old Pond, (4) West Tin Creek Hills, and (5) Tin Creek—with respect to factors such as vulnerability to storm surge, flooding, erosion, and high winds; access to traditional use areas and subsistence camps; and costs of relocation (e.g., preparing the new site, developing access roads, cost of living, etc.). West Nunatuq ranked poorly in most categories, while Old Pond and West Tin Creek Hills rated highly, particularly with respect to being less vulnerable to physical processes and development potential. In August 2016 by a vote of 94–78, residents elected to relocate to either Old Pond or West Tin Creek Hills on the mainland.
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.
Ongoing short-term shoreline protection and hardening measures have been 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). More recent estimates are that over $25 million has been spent to attempt to hold back the sea in Shishmaref.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office has identified thirty other coastal villages in Alaska that may need fast-paced relocations to escape erosion and melting permafrost. At least 12 Native Alaskan villages have elected to explore relocation as a viable alternative as their towns are swallowed by the sea. These sites include Newtok, Kivalina, Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, Allakaket, Golovin, Hughes, Huslia, Koyukuk, Nulato, Teller, and Unalakleet. In November 2019, Shishmaref ranked as the second most at-risk community in Alaska—behind Shaktoolik—due to the combined threats of erosion, flooding, and melting permafrost.
Alaska's Incredible Shrinking Village: Rising seas are claiming Shishmaref and its Native culture of self-sufficiency
Shishmaref Relocation Plan Update (2010)
Shishmaref Relocation Site Selection Feasibility Study (2016)
Statewide Threat Assessment: Identification of Threats from Erosion, Flooding, and Thawing Permafrost in Remote Alaska Communities (2019)
Alaska Community Coastal Protection Project
Shishmaref Strategic Management Plan (2016)
Report to Congressional Requesters: Alaska Native Villages
Gregg, R. M. (2020). Relocating the Native Village of Shishmaref, Alaska Due to Coastal Erosion [Case study on a project of the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition]. Version 2.0. Product of EcoAdapt's State of Adaptation Program. (Last updated July 2020)