Climate change and erosion will displace millions by 2050

COURTESY/MCT CAMPUS

Elizabeth Marino is studying an island that’s about to fall into the ocean.

Marino, a guest lecturer from the University of Alaska — Fairbanks, gave a lecture Friday, Nov. 5 about climate change and environmental migrants.

The lecture, “Losing Ground: Understanding Environmental Relocations and Climate Change Response in Alaska and Throughout the World,” was held in the Jordan Ballroom in the Student Union Building.

“When a profound ecological disaster occurs, very often people leave,” Marino said.

Marino said there are more environmental migrants than refugees in the world. Very often these displaced people end up in inner city slums. They have no place else to go.

Marino used Shishmaref, Alaska as an example of the impact of climate change. Shishmaref is a barrier sand island on the western coast of Alaska. It is home to about 600 people, most of them Alaskan Natives.

Shishmaref is just half a mile wide and has been losing 10 feet each year due to erosion. One night during a bad storm, it lost 30 feet.

“The Army Corps of Engineers has said in 15 years this place is going to be uninhabitable,” Marino said. “And that was four years ago.”

One of the reasons for the rapid erosion is the ice that normally protects Shishmaref’s shoreline during the winter has been freezing later and later in the year. This makes the island more susceptible to winter storms which strip away some of the island each year.

This in turn makes the island more prone to floods.

“There are no flooding stories before about 1950,” Marino said.

Now, large floods are a common occurrence.

The island’s inhabitants have been petitioning authorities for relocation since the 1970s. More than 30 years later, the people are still there.

One reason for this problem is the high turnover rate in governing positions. With so many officials coming and going in a short amount of time, it is easy for the small island to be ignored.

Another difficulty is that Shishmaref’s inhabitants want to be relocated to their traditional lands on the mainland. The spot they want to go to is very remote. It would cost about $180 million to relocate them.

For now, the residents of Shishmaref are just stuck where they are, moving their houses closer to the center of the island or building new ones as they fall into the ocean.

Shishmaref isn’t the only place experiencing difficulties with erosion. There are 213 Alaskan villages, of them, 184 (86 percent) face erosion-related problems.

The Sahel region in central Africa and the Mekong River Delta in eastern Asia are also experiencing a lot of climate change. Many environmental migrants are from these areas.

Marino estimated that by 2050 there will be 200 million environmental migrants.

The Basics

A small Alaskan village is just one of almost 200 being hurt by climate change. The villagers will eventually join the ranks of the world’s millions of environmental migrants.

About the author  ⁄ samantharoyce