On a stormy day in August 2017, my boss and I landed on a tiny barrier island off the northwest coast of Alaska. Amy Martin and I were reporting for the second season of Threshold, a podcast and radio show that tackles one pressing environmental issue each season. This season is all about the Polar North and features reporting from all eight Arctic countries. But instead of ice sheets and polar bears, we’re starting with people. Four million people live in the Arctic, and we’re looking at climate change through their eyes to understand what the Arctic is, how it’s changing, and why those changes matter to all of us.
That day in August, we were in a predominantly Iñupiat village called Shishmaref. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and the 600 people here are living at the front line of climate change. Due to warming temperatures, the sea ice that surrounds the island forms later than it used to each year. This means waves from fall storms swoop in to batter the land itself rather than the blanket of ice around the island. Each storm takes chunks out of the coast. In 2005, one of those torrents hit the island. Photos of houses precariously perched just above the raging sea showed up in news outlets around the world, and Shishmaref became a poster child for climate change. In 2016, residents voted to relocate—the final tally was 94 to 78. But doing so is expensive; people here lack the money to make the move, and the government hasn’t allocated the funds. So life goes on here despite the risk of deadly storms each fall.
The climate isn’t the only thing changing in Shishmaref. To find out more about the village, I joined Amy on the island with a big fuzzy microphone in one hand and a camera in the other.
Photo: Brent and Elmer weave between boats on the shores of the island. The late-night and long-lived summer sunset blazes behind them, but their eyes are fixed on the ground, not the sky. On the other side of the island, a five-minute walk away, waves slurp at the seawall. It’s summer now; in a few months, ferocious fall storms will blow in.