CNS Postdoc Researcher Shearer Contributes Article to The NY Times' "Room for Debate" on Federal Aid & Disaster Management

Christine Shearer

In Alaska, Seeing the Future of U.S. Coasts

Christine Shearer, a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of "Kivalina: A Climate Change Story."

Updated November 26, 2012, 5:30 PM

Above the Arctic Circle sits the Alaska Native village of Kivalina, one of the first settlements in the U.S. that will be lost to climate change.

Kivalina is a primarily Iñupiat community of about 400 people, perched on a barrier reef island between the Chukchi Sea and a lagoon. Its residents can no longer safely remain, having been hit by a series of dangerous storms since 2004 that have swallowed up to 70 feet of land at a time. Disaster declarations helped release Congressional funding for sea walls, offering protection from coastal erosion but not flooding. Relocation is necessary, although there are no policies in place to make that happen.

Wealthier areas get aid to rebuild, but rural places like Kivalina, an Alaskan community eroded by storms since 2004, are often on their own.

Kivalina residents traditionally depended on the formation of sea ice in early fall, to harden the island and buffer it against storms. With warming Arctic temperatures, the ice forms later and melts earlier, leaving the shoreline unfrozen and exposed. Government reports in 2003, 2006 and 2009 stated that the people needed to be relocated, because the island is eroding away.

The reports were not news to Kivalina, whose residents formally voted to relocate in 1992. Iñupiat communities have a long history of adapting to environmental changes; Kivalina was originally a seasonal hunting ground, but the federal government compelled people to settle there and enroll children in school – or face imprisonment.

Even as Kivalina faces permanent displacement, there is no formal relocation policy in the U.S., and no national adaptation strategy. Current disaster management policies primarily help people remain in existing settlements, often unequally: many wealthy developers and property owners are compensated again and again, while more rural communities like Kivalina often do not qualify for such assistance.

Kivalina’s situation suggests the need for better integrating existing disaster management policies and adaptation measures. As we face more extreme weather events and sea level rise, relocating could save not only money, but also lives.