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Photo: Theresa Soley

On the edge of the continent, climate change is threatening towns and a traditional way of life

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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Igleghneghput, kiyaghtaalleghput, kelliikun, nunakun ayuguq. –Siberian/St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik

Inusigut nunami aasinlu tagiumi. –Inupiaq

Our relationship with the land and sea is our lifeline.

Shaggy muskox wander slowly, heads hanging toward tundra. Reindeer graze here in herds. Geese fly overhead, southbound, and silver salmon run into weaving freshwater streams. Offshore, walrus and “oogruk,” or bearded seals, travel on their seasonal feeding migrations.

In centuries past, Alaska’s Inupiaq and Yup’ik peoples moved with the seasons too, following salmon and seals. But after 1784, when Russians and Westerners arrived, their semi-nomadic lifestyles gave way to settled towns and villages, sometimes near a single resource, like gold.

Today, this windblown coastal strip of Alaska is composed of yellow and brown boxes pockmarked with small windows, covered by peeling roofs. At the western edge of North America’s mainland, the turbid surf of the Bering Sea meets a spot of humanity in Nome.

The city of Nome is situated just south of the sea-covered land bridge where it’s believed the first humans wandered to North America from Siberia some 30,000 years ago. Today, Nome is home to an estimated 3,500 residents, 59 percent of whom are Indigenous or Alaska Native, and the city serves as the regional hub and commerce center of Northwest Alaska, where residents from Native villages travel by small plane for medical services and supplies. But things are changing in the Arctic. Warming ocean temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns are resulting in unexpected storms and coastal erosion, as well as opening seaways and shifting animal populations traditionally relied upon for food.

A deep connection with the land and sea has long defined life here. But in Nome and elsewhere on the Seward Peninsula, that connection is challenged by rapid environmental changes. In some communities, the very earth is disappearing under their feet.

Famous as the finish line of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the city of Nome was settled in 1899 when a group of 42 Westerners arrived, seeking gold in the nearby Snake River. Mining off the coast using small dredge vessels still occurs, but today Nome’s largest employers are Native corporations and associations, government and the local hospital.

While climate change is well documented around the world, in the Arctic its effects are arriving fast and dramatically. The Alaska Climate Research Center has documented a 3º F temperature increase in Nome over the last 70 years, and according to many scientific studies, during the past decade the entire state of Alaska has warmed twice as quickly as the rest of the world. Data collected at weather stations indicate that last winter was the fifth warmest on record here, and NASA’s Arctic data indicated that in 2017 the ocean had the least winter sea ice coverage in recorded history.

Jacob Martin, tribal resource director at the Nome Eskimo Community, says the seasonal changes in Nome have been drastic. He and other Natives living along the coast of Western Alaska have observed myriad environmental shifts aligned with shifting storm patterns and increasing temperatures: Tundra fires are becoming more common; moose seem to be proliferating; new bird species migrate and stop here; sea lions appear more numerous; and some berries, like low bush blueberries, are reportedly less abundant.

Hunting the marine mammals that are a key part of subsistence culture for many Native communities is also growing more perilous as the sea ice where they congregate becomes less plentiful and predictable each year.

Jaylen Gologergen, a soft-spoken Siberian Yup’ik from St. Lawrence Island, said his ancestors have relied upon walrus and oogruk for eons. This past winter, his family had to venture farther from shore to reach the sea ice they need for walrus hunting.

“They noticed there was barely any ice formed around the Nome region,” Gologergen said.

An abandoned house at the west end of Shishmaref, Alaska, sits on the beach after sliding off during a fall storm in 2005. Diana Haecker/AP Photo

According to one oral story recorded in Yup’ik and translated into English, villages are born from the ocean. The tale speaks of a marine spirit that came from a kayak and sent a message to a woman, which “transformed into a [human] child for her.” From that one baby, a coastal community grew, and so emerged the human village on land.

A paper published in 2013 lists 31 Alaskan communities vulnerable to threats of climate-induced weather and erosion, some 12 of which have current plans to relocate.

One of them is Shishmaref, a Native village of 600 residents on Kigiktaq Island in the Chukchi Sea, just offshore from the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. The coastline of the isle is eroding quickly, attributed to increased air and sea temperatures and stronger storm surges. As the permafrost melts, the village is literally falling into the sea. According to a 2016 study, Shishmaref has lost 200 feet of land since 1969, and since 1976 the town has considered relocation inland. Two years ago residents voted 89 to 78 to leave.

But Annie Weyiouanna, local coordinator for the village, said the word “relocation” is harmful to their community. Rather than relocating, she said, Shishmaref is in the process of a site expansion that will take many years to reach completion. In the meantime, the village is impacted daily by erosion, flooding and violent storms. It needs funds for projects on the island, like an extension of the seawall, to curtail coastal erosion while residents still live there.

And moving inland brings its own challenges. The Inupiaq people who live in Shishmaref rely on their coastal connection for survival.

“We are a very active subsistence community. We live off the land, sea and air,” Weyiouanna said. “Our grocery store is the ocean. Our grocery store is the mainland … There’s only so long that we can eat beef and pork and chicken, that’s not part of our diet. That’s not what we’re used to. We need those seals, we need the walrus, we need the food from the ocean.”

The coastline of Nome, Alaska, where climate change is impacting everything from hunting to animal migrations to cruise ship routes. Theresa Soley

Nome has no intention of moving, at least for now. The Nome Eskimo Community (NEC) and the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have composed a 30-page Nome Tribal Climate Adaptation Plan to address how the city will approach the impacts of climate change. A living document, the plan’s initiatives include modifying food preservation techniques to reduce spoilage of fish caused by warmer temperatures, protecting tribal cemeteries from crumbling with the shoreline, supporting climate research and creating infrastructure for the predicted increase in ship traffic through the Bering Strait.

Behind the wheel of a tourism van scattered with bird books, wearing khakis and a grey puffy jacket, Nome’s boisterous mayor Richard Beneville said he even observes the reverberations of a warming climate in his own garden. “Change has been a factor of Native existence for thousands of years,” he said. “The big difference is the rapidity or how quickly [the changes have] come across.”

Beneville believes increased accessibility to the Bering Strait for ship transit—now open due to the shrinking of sea ice—could become the most significant cause for restructuring in Nome. He said the U.S. has been slow to adapt to changing conditions, the implications of which he sees reaching far beyond the boundaries of his small arctic town. Local communities ought to become intricately involved with climate adaptation, he said. “It’s not just something happening in the far north. It’s happening all over the globe.”