From New York to Newtok: Villages Are Sinking, But Hope Rises

4:30 am. My sister and I awoke with hearts racing and the intentions of observing a new, untouched world. We are the first recorded teens to fly from New York to Newtok, a remote Alaskan village being forced to experience the direct results of climate change. Many people in Alaska’s main cities were unaware of Newtok’s struggle with relocation; the opportunity to travel there is rare. From the work we did in New York, we made numerous contacts whom we interviewed in Anchorage; each one recounting their experience with weather shifts differently.

“The heat and rising sea levels have been making my salmon take different routes,” one local said. “Me and my buddy … now we need to travel far from home to go to different streams. The gas money for the travel … you know, it all counts.”

One of the most important and interesting contacts we made was with the Alaskan youth.

“I thought about not having kids because I don’t want them to grow up in a world where it’s so uncertain because of climate change,” said Alex Jorgensen, Arctic Youth Ambassador.

It is this uncertainty in weather that frightens so many, and what drives my initiative. If we know that weather uncertainty in uncontrollable, let’s focus our energy on something we can control. Our preparedness.

We flew from Anchorage to Bethel, and from Bethel, we chartered a small 9-seater propeller plane to Newtok. My sister and I along with our team were greeted by welcoming faces, excited by the two teens from Manhattan who cared about the ancestral land their Yupik culture was built upon. ATVs picked us up from the airstrip. We drove on uneven planks of wood where the width of the ATV just fit so we wouldn’t sink into the dense mud that much of the land was comprised of. As we drove, everyone waved to us. The air was clear, and we could see that the water’s edge was held back by a limp wall formed by the eroded land.

“It may look like a map to you, but that flooding is right outside this door right here,” said Romy Cadiente, Village Relocation Coordinator.

Surrounding Newtok on three of its sides is the Ninglick River. For years, it has been eating away at the land and sweeping it away with the tide that empties out into the Bering Sea. As temperatures rapidly increase, the permafrost underneath Newtok is thawing. This results in what can be about 100 feet of land eroding every year, pushing the water’s edge even closer to villagers.

According to Cadiente, cemeteries, schools, and houses will be swept away in only a few years. Other villages struggling with relocation turned to seawalls to add time to their race against nature. However, Newtok is too fragile and low-lying for the sea walls to support. The land will eventually be overtaken by water, putting people’s lives in danger. The only choice they have is to relocate to a new village, but the price tag is far too high for Newtok villagers to move all at once. A report by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers concluded it would cost upwards from $80 million dollars.

The new village is 9-miles away, located atop a dark volcanic rock on Nelson Island. During the winter months, it would take approximately thirty minutes by snowmobile to cross the Ninglick river and arrive at the new site. This summer, my sister and I were fortunate enough to travel the nine miles by boat from Newtok to visit Mertarvik, their new village site. We witnessed construction crews working on the first phase of infrastructure where there was running water, a sewer system, and six new homes. It is extremely important to understand that this summer is where they need a big push for construction, as cooler months bring brutal storms and water rises rapidly.

By losing land, we are increasing our vulnerability to further hazardous weather and in turn, we are depleting our natural resources. The results really hit when infrastructure is being damaged. Only when infrastructure is damaged is when it will be declared a national emergency, and we will unlock the funds needed. However, by that time, we already let the coasts erode to the point that we are looking at billions upon billions of dollars. As we predict, it will cost more money in disaster relief than the money we are looking at if we take action now.

Climate-induced relocation is the extreme result of the weather shifts occurring across the world.

According to reports by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Louisiana is losing its coastline at the rate of a football field every 100 minutes. Not only that, but NPR reports that more than half of the state’s population lives on the coast. Places such as Massachusetts, Malibu, Texas, and countries outside of the U.S are struggling with the same issues. Climate Central projected that the greatest sea level increase is to occur on the shores of New York City. Superstorm Sandy of 2012 and other significant storm surges will become more frequent as well as more impactful. It is important to remember the Arctic directly impacts our weather despite being perceived as disconnected. In early 2014, frigid air from the Arctic traveled to the Northern Hemisphere, creating 50 daily record low temperatures on January 6th alone. Today, the Arctic continues to warm two times faster than the global average.

It is my generation that needs to see what is happening in Alaska as a wakeup call for action. We need to be informed about extreme weather preparedness and not wait for another crisis to occur for it to become yet another cry for help. My sister and I feel so passionate about stimulating change in order to promote a safer generation, that we created climigrate.org. The website, currently in progress, will include interviews with people such as Robin Bronen, Executive Director of Alaska Institute for Justice; Senior Research Scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Ed Rasmuson; Chairman of the Rasmuson Foundation; Arctic Youth Ambassadors; Alaska Teen Media Institute, Alaska Center, and more.

More than interviews and our documentary, our goal is to raise money for the people of Newtok to move safely to Mertarvik. I strongly encourage others to donate money to continue construction of the new site and facilitate a safer relocation.

Age should not be a barrier nor excuse in taking action. My sister and I initially became interested in the village of Newtok through the Shishmaref Day School Class of 1973 Eskimo Cookbook that my Great Aunt gave to us as small children. Shishmaref today, is the poster child for relocation and climate change advocacy.

“Skin the seal, boil the blubber …” we read.

The recipes, vastly different from our own, left an indelible mark of curiosity and excitement that made us eager to follow their stories. When first hearing of their relocation, we asked ourselves how families within the country we live in, are facing problems so different from anything we are familiar with. For the two years before coming to Alaska, we spent our time doing extensive research about the villages facing the harshest of realities. Their heart-tugging stories and pride for their land made us feel as though they were not so distant. It also made us realize that they are refugees – not of war, but of climate change.

At the very least, I hope that people are aware.

Aware that there are whole villages being forced to move due to weather-induced changes. It is a warning for what will be happening in our future if we don’t start becoming prepared. We must now work our way back to start erasing the damage we created in order to move forward, and the first step in accomplishing this is becoming educated. My sister and I went to Newtok with a set plan of creating a documentary. We did create this documentary, and I do think people will learn a lot from it. However, the experience of fulfilling something you have become invested in is something you cannot document. The message of our mission to Newtok is clear, but our emphasis on action-oriented decisions is equally as important.

Brooke Goldman

Brooke Goldman, 15, is a sophomore at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in NYC. This past summer, she traveled throughout Alaska to film a documentary about Alaska's small village of Newtok's relocation. She co-founded a nonprofit organization with her sister Ava, CLIMIGRATE.ORG. Brooke is also a U.S.O. volunteer at JFK airport where she greets veterans and active duty soldiers and their families. In middle school, she enjoyed composing music with the New York Philharmonic, and she currently still has a love for music in the form of her ukelele and guitar.

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