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Alaska Village Votes To Relocate In Face Of Rising Sea Levels And Climate Change

"[W]e realize we have no choice," a resident said. "It really hurts knowing that your only home is going to be gone."

Last updated on August 18, 2016, at 1:34 a.m. ET

Posted on August 18, 2016, at 12:36 a.m. ET

Shishmaref, Alaska
Bering Land Bridge National Preserve

Shishmaref, Alaska

Residents of a remote Alaskan island voted Wednesday to relocate to safer ground over fears of erosion from rising sea levels and melting ice.

The village of Shishmaref, home to about 650 Inupiat, an Alaska Native people, is located on a barrier island that is experiencing a rapid rate of erosion due to rising temperatures. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, warmer weather has melted sea ice that used to protect the area from ocean waves and has thawed the permafrost the community is built on.

An abandoned house at the west end of Shishmaref, Alaska after sliding into the beach during a storm in 2005.
Diana Haecker / AP

An abandoned house at the west end of Shishmaref, Alaska after sliding into the beach during a storm in 2005.

The unofficial vote count Wednesday was 89 in favor of moving and 78 voting to stay, the city clerk told the Associated Press. The tally does not include absentee or special needs ballots.

The decision to move is still tentative since the remote community would need to raise an estimated $180 million to relocate to a safer area. The city clerk said the community will decide at a later point where to move to, but it would likely be on the nearby mainland.

A snowmachine trail across the Shishmaref Lagoon.
Angela / Via Flickr: alstonfamily

A snowmachine trail across the Shishmaref Lagoon.

Over the past 35 years, the village has lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet of land to coastal erosion, according to Shishmaref native Esau Sinnok, who wrote an essay for the US Department of the Interior. Sinnok said his family has moved to 13 different houses from one end of the island to the other over 15 years due to loss of land.

The community survives by hunting seals and walrus on the still-frozen sea in the spring, fishing by removing cylinders of ice out of the estuary in the winter, and gathering plants in the summer.

"Every year it gets harder and harder to collect enough meat for the winter," Sinnok said. "If we can’t hunt and fish to feed ourselves in the winter, we will starve."

Sinnok, who is an Arctic Youth Ambassador, attended the United Nations Cop21 last year Paris, where a global treaty was signed by 195 nations in an effort to combat climate change, and discussed how warmer temperatures have affected the Arctic more rapidly than other parts of the world.

"Everyone wants to stay – especially the older generations who have spent their whole lives in Shishmaref," Sinnok wrote. "But we realize we have no choice. It really hurts knowing that your only home is going to be gone, and you won't hunt, fish and carry on traditions the way that your people have done for centuries. It is more than a loss of place, it is a loss of identity."

Newtok, Alaska where the eroding bank along the Ninglick River has long been a problem for the village 480 miles west of Anchorage.
Al Grillo / AP

Newtok, Alaska where the eroding bank along the Ninglick River has long been a problem for the village 480 miles west of Anchorage.

In addition to Shishmaref, the US Government Accountability Office found 30 other villages in the Alaskan Arctic "face imminent threats" due to erosion and flooding.

At least 12 of those communities, including Shishmaref, have decided to explore relocation options. The Yupik village of Newtok, about 350 miles south of Shishmaref, has made the most progress in its relocation efforts, which is predicted to be submerged in a few years.

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