It's a choice confronting more than native communities in Alaska, which are flooding and losing land because of the ice melt that is part of the changing climate. The Arctic Council, the group of countries that governs the polar regions, are gathering in Sweden today. But climate change refugees are not high on their agenda, and Obama administration officials told reporters on Friday there would be no additional money to help communities in the firing line. On the other side of the continent, the cities and towns of the east coast are waking up to their own version of Warner's nightmare: the storm surges demonstrated by hurricane Sandy.
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About half of America's population lives within 50 miles of a coastline. Those numbers are projected to grow even more in the coming decades. What chance do any of those communities, in Alaska or on the Atlantic coast, have of a fair and secure future under climate change, if a tiny community like Newtok — just 63 houses in all — cannot be assured of survival? But as the villagers of Newtok are discovering, recognising the gravity of the threat posed by climate change and responding in time are two very different matters.
Newtok lies miles due west of Anchorage. The closest town of any size, the closest doctor, gas station, or paved road, is almost miles away. The only year-round link to the outside world is via a small propeller plane from the regional hub of Bethel. The seven-seater plane flies over a landscape that seems pancake flat under the snow: bright white for land, slightly translucent swirls for frozen rivers. There are no trees.
The village as seen from the air is a cluster of almost identical small houses, plopped down at random on the snow.
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The airport is a patch of ground newly swept of snow, marked off for the pilot by a circle of orange traffic cones. The airport manager runs the luggage into the centre of the village on a yellow sledge attached to his snowmobile.
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Like many if not most native Alaskan villages, Newtok owes its location to a distant bureaucrat. The Yup'iks, who had lived in these parts of Alaska for hundreds of years, had traditionally used the area around present-day Newtok as a seasonal stopping-off place, convenient for late summer berry picking. Even then, their preferred encampment, when they passed through the area, was a cluster of sod houses called Kayalavik, some miles further up river. But over the years, the authorities began pushing native Alaskans to settle in fixed locations and to send their children to school.
It was difficult for supply barges to manoeuvre as far up river as Kayalavik.
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After , when Alaska became a state, the new authorities ordered villagers to move to a more convenient docking point. It takes two hours from Anchorage to fly to Bethel and another 90 minutes in a smaller plane that stops in villages on the way, to reach Newtok. Photograph: Richard Sprenger. Welcome to Newtok. Raymond Charles, the local agent for Era Aviation in Newtok, functions as ticket agent, ground crew, and baggage handler.
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Newtok is a Yup'ik Eskimo village with a population of , according to the last official count in Snow machines, as they are called here, are the main mode of transport in winter. They are essential for hunters, and the only way to travel to nearby villages in winter. Money is tight in Newtok and people need to be creative to make repairs.
Old snow machines are practically held together with rubber bands. Tom John scrapes at the hide of a muskox. The skin will be sold to a cooperative in Anchorage.
If cleaned of fat the price offered is higher. Many families in Newtok still count on hunting to get by. The head of the muskox. Hunters go out on snowmobile to hunt the herds of muskox that roam near here in the winter. The Alaskan authorities issue a limited number of permits every year. Ice fishing. Those are Nathan Tom's feet. Fishermen wait for the tide to come in to go out under the ice and fish. At this time of year at that spot it was mostly smelt at this location. Lisa Charles with four of her six children in the kitchen of her home in Newtok.
The family has been allotted one of the first houses to be built at the new village site, and can't wait to move out of their crowded two-bedroom home. Left to right Generator and water supply equipment.
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Newtok's drinking water supply was shut down because of contamination last October, and has yet to be restored. The entire village had to rely on the school for water over the winter. But the central school authority has said it can not continue supplying the entire village, and will cut off service on 31 May. The biggest of the only two stores in Newtok. Everything here is flown in, and the prices are high. Many people in Newtok have spent time outside the village.
Snow machines replaced dog teams long ago, but the dogs are still around. The school gym is the biggest building in Newtok and an important centre of social life for the community. Children practice Eskimo dances at school, and also compete in the Native Youth Olympics.
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Many villagers also drop by the school to access the free wifi — though social media is blocked during school hours. TThe post office is the busiest place in the village the morning after a plane comes in, with people dropping in for their mail, deliveries of medicine and gossip. Sunset beyond the airport tarmac. Occasional visitors that stay overnight are hosted in the school, with an early wake-up call advice to avoid the school start. Bingo night. There is not a lot to do during the long cold nights of winter, so bingo nights are run several times a week at the community hall. The building is in terrible shape, and the plywood floor sags like an old mattress.
The man in the forefront is the school principal, Grant Kashatok. That became Newtok. Current state officials admit the location — on low-lying mud flats between the river and the Bering Sea — was far from perfect. It certainly wasn't chosen with a view to future threats such as climate change.
It became clear by the s that Newtok — like dozens of other remote communities in Alaska — was losing land at a dangerous rate. Almost all native Alaskan villages are located along rivers and sea coasts, and almost all are facing similar peril. In the case of Newtok, those effects were potentially life threatening. A study by the US Army Corps of Engineers on the effects of climate change on native Alaskan villages, the one that predicted the school would be underwater by , found no remedies for the loss of land in Newtok.
The land was too fragile and low-lying to support sea walls or other structures that could keep the water out, the report said, adding that if the village did not move, the land would eventually be overrun with water. People could die. It was a staggering verdict for Newtok. Some of the village elders remember the upheaval of that earlier move. The villagers were adamant that they take charge of the move this time and remain an intact community — not scatter to other towns.
And so after years of poring over reports, the entire community voted to relocate to higher ground across the river. The decision was endorsed by the state authorities.
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