by Hans Erren
With a small majority of 94 over 78, the people of Shishmaref on the barrier island Sarichef in Alaska, voted on August 16th to leave the island. It is yet another voting in long row that all never came into force. The issue that becomes more evident, however, is the ever dwindling majority: on August 11 1973 it was a vote of “everybody”, in July 2002 it was 161-20 and now 94-78 on a population slightly below 600.
The recent news prompted me to gather some objective US government data to map the erosion of the Alaskan barrier islands between 1950 an 2012. I found a detailed topographic map of 1950, and recent digital elevation data of 2012. The data confirmed again what I had found out already six years ago (in dutch): Sarichef Island is migrating north east, wheras Shishmaref town is eroding on the west side. The island is not disappearing into the sea, the channel on the east side is moving eastwards a well. The easternmost tip of Sarichef Island has now even reached the location of the westernmost tip of the neighbouring island in 1950.
Comparison of the Shishmaref coast in 1950 and 2012
Shaded relief of Sarichef Island Elevation map of Sarichef Island
Is it a wise decision to leave the island for the mainland? Two islands in The Netherlands were faced with a similar situation in the past: The town of West-Vlieland in 1734 and the island of Schokland (now a UNESCO world heritage site) in 1859.
Schokland was a peat island in the Zuyderzee that was prone to severe coastal erosion. In the end, the 650 inhabitants were manoevering on narrow wooden boardwalks across the remnant of the island. They were forced to evacuate to the mainland in 1859, were they lived in poverty outside the gates of the rich town of Kampen.
West-Vlieland in many aspects is similar to Shishmaref. This town also was located on a barrier island and it also eroded on the western side. Even the town plan of 1720 of West-Vlieland shows some similarities with current Shishmaref. However, in contrast with the people of Schokland, the West-Vlieland people stayed on their island, they just relocated eastwards to the town of Oost-Vlieland. On the eastern side of Sarichef there is still (even more!) room to relocate, and a growing part is willing to stay, because they know that on the mainland only poverty awaits, just like the people of Schokland in 1859. Island erosion is clearly a phenomenon of all times, and cannot specifically be blamed on humans.
West-Vlieland in 1720 Shishmaref in 2016
Sarichef is the most famous island of Alaska, it has an airstrip, but no hotel. One would imagine, that after the island became “hot” in 2009, that the islanders would have seized this golden opportunity to welcome interested and concerned eco-tourists, there is also plenty if wildlife to spot in these pristine wetlands. The Dutch counterpart Vlieland is a very popular destination for tourists who look for a quiet nature experience with seals and bird life.
In short: there definitely is a golden future ahead for Shishmaref. Which enterpreneur will fund the construction of an eco-hotel on the island? Then the paying guests can arrive! A status as UNESCO world heritage site would boost the status of the island even more, that same status brings people back to Schokland in The Netherlands.
* Dermot Cole, Shishmaref’s split vote on whether to go or stay erodes its position, Alaska Dispatch News,26-8-2016
* Michael Bastasch, Beyond The Spin: Alaska Village’s Demise Is More Complicated Than Yelling ‘Global Warming’, Daily Caller, 21/8/2016
John Davies add via email:
During a recent conversation about global warming (when I stated that actual sea level rise was a tiny % of that claimed by politicians & the MSM ), someone came up with the slightly sarcastic comment –
“Anything to bolster a belief that the Inupiat villagers of Shishmaref in Alaska will be able to move back onto their land-bridge homestead ”.
Well, we’ve all seen dramatic headlines like –
“Climate Change Takes A Village”
“Alaskan village threatened by rising sea levels”
– complete with spectacular photos of buildings falling into the sea…. to prove it’s all true !
And if you Google Shishmaref you get – About 513,000 results (0.57 seconds) – a lot are of a similar nature – & no I haven’t checked them all.
So, I had a quick look at Shishmaref village & the island of Sarichef.
Where is it
66°15’20”N 166°04’20”W – http://tinyurl.com/hegfhcg near the Bering Strait, Alaska.
It’s a 7.2 km2 barrier island protecting the Shishmaref lagoon situated on the North West side of the Seward Peninsular; 124 miles north of Nome, & five miles from the mainland. It faces the Chukchi Sea.
It was excavated by archaeologists around 1821. This showed Eskimo habitation for several centuries, probably as a summer camp for the semi-nomadic Inupiat population.
Around 1900, Shishmaref’s excellent harbor had become a supply center for gold mining activities to the south.
The village was named after the inlet, and a post office was established there in 1901.
“Early in the 20th century the U.S. government pursued a deliberate policy of ending all nomadic lifestyles among Native Americans. The people of Shishmaref weren’t forcibly collectivized in the way that Natives were elsewhere in the country in the 19th century, but the government’s opening of a school in Shishmaref, coupled with the onset of compulsory education, had the same effect.
For the traditionally mobile Inupiat who settled there, Shishmaref made a certain amount of sense. It’s ideally located for winter hunting on sea ice and close enough to the mainland to access traditional subsistence grounds in summer. It was, however, always tenuous ground to build on.”
From ‘Fierce Climate Sacred Ground’ – By Elizabeth Marino 2015.
In 1969, the city government was incorporated.
The 2015 population ~560.
In 2002 & again on 16/8/2016, the village voted to move the town to the mainland.
The geology of Sarichef Island (http://alaska.guide/Small-Island/1409092/Sarichef-Island )
The island consists mainly of gravel banks & sand dunes.
Tidal flows & prevailing winds produce ‘Longshore drift’.
It’s part of a dynamic, 100km-long barrier island chain that’s constantly moving.
(similar to the UKs – Spurn point, Orford Ness, Chesel bank, Blakeney point, Fairbourne , Dungeness, our own Newborough warren & numerous other sites around the world)
Some useful pics & diagrams of the area here –
I found this book interesting: ‘Pitfalls of Shoreline Stabilization’ Cooper & Pilkey. http://tinyurl.com/zqjm9b2 (scroll down for text)
– Particularly the part that mentions Shishmaref.
• 5.3.1 Storm History. Including ‘total inundation in 1893’;
• Table 5.1 ‘in 1996 badly designed Barriers actually contributing to erosion’;
• 5.6 The Uses & Abuses of Anecdotal Accounts. (an example off how to sell a story)
• 5.6 Studies by ACE (Army Corps of Engineering) & CU (Colorado University) of erosion rates from 1937 to 2003 using Maps, Aerial photos & on the ground measurements, show erosion was highest in the 1940s declining until the 70s when it spiked again.
Shore front Erosion losses = In total 77m lost over 76years (long term average = ~1m/yr) but there are spikes (at approx 30yrs )-1940s ~26m; 1970s ~13m; 2000s ~8m, showing a diminishing trend.
“Shishmaref island exhibits an erosion rate nearly twice that of non-developed shorelines.” (Manley et al 2007).
[ Preliminary calculations are that erosion rates average 1m per year, contrary to the anecdotal accounts of >10m per year reported by news agencies since 1997 (Lempinen 2006). The average rate is twice the rate on undeveloped adjacent islands. Erosion has accelerated around the margins of the revetments, expanded from cement blocks and gabions in the 1980s to boulders placed since 2001. ]
• 5.7 “Despite the warmer limited sea ice of the past several years, Shishmaref has NOT reported heightened erosion, even during the ‘Great storm of 2011’.
Sea level rise
Arctic Circle Region
Sea level rise Shishmaref <0.3mm/yr.
“These new data points supplement the curve produced from the Shishmaref barrier island, lagoonal and deltaic marsh peats which indicate the cumulative averaged rate of sea level rise in the Chukchi Sea was very slow, 0.27 mm year”
See pg 20 – Minimal late Holocene sea level rise in the Chukchi Sea. Pdf http://tinyurl.com/hetobwc
1. Longshore drift & prevailing winds are the main cause of the erosion & re- formation. (Attrition & Accretion)
2. Annual erosion levels have been falling since 1940s.
3. Erosion rate appears to accelerate then subside every ~30 years.
4. Erosion was increased by human interference of a natural process.
5. Over a century of constant habitation, has proved that putting ‘permanent structures’ in a fragile & moving landscape is prone to fail (like building on floodplains, or on the side of an active volcano).
The original nomads got it right – Use it as a summer camp & move away in winter.
6. Nature will eventually completely remove the island & rebuild elsewhere….Again & Again….in its own timescale. It won’t take account of mans hopes or desires (however important we think we are); because that’s how nature works!
Our ancestors learned that….but it’s a lesson we seem to have forgotten.
7. Sea level rise at less than 0.3mm/yr is not a major issue.
8. A dynamic barrier island, gravel banks, sand dunes, storm surges, permanent structures collapsing;
(there may be some clues somewhere in those words ! )
But for those of a religious disposition, see Matthew 7:24-27
9. It is a man made disaster (for man), but involving mainly Geology…not Climate.
The answer to the opening comment is –
The villagers will have to move from their historically government enforced settlement & maybe return to the ancestral nomadic existence, albeit with 4x4s, smart phones & satnav.
The world has a long history of settlements (built in the wrong place) being lost to the elements, I could list 100s (& if you’re not careful…. I will).
The inhabitants of Shishmaref are victims of a modern bureaucracy, not global warming…. IMHO.
Refs & further reading –
• ‘Fierce Climate Sacred Ground’ – By Elizabeth Marino 2015
• ‘Developments in sedimentology’ John Allen 1984
• Minimal late Holocene sea level rise in the Chukchi Sea:
Arctic insensitivity to global change? Mason & Jordan 2002 PDF – http://tinyurl.com/hetobwc
• ‘Pitfalls of Shoreline Stabilization’ Cooper & Pilkey. http://tinyurl.com/zqjm9b2
[- it’s available from Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Pitfalls+of+Shoreline+Stabilization
for – £90 to £321. Ebook £43….How much !!! ]
• Longshore drift explanation – http://www.alevelgeography.com/transportation/
• & wikipedia; Sorry !! – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shishmaref,_Alaska