In the tiny town of Shishmaref, the effects of climate change are among the most dramatic in the world. The traditional Inuit village is under siege by the rising ocean, but calls to the Trump administration for aid are falling on deaf ears. Reporter Harrison Christian visits the Arctic town falling into the sea.
Shishmaref, Alaska, population 650, is a thin line of plywood houses on a barrier island in the Chukchi Sea.
A couple of shops, a school, and an old water tank where people go to shower in cubicles once or twice a week. These are the town landmarks.
Vice-mayor Stanley Tocktoo’s family home has the transitory look of a beached ship, standing on raised foundations above a sandy graveyard of buoys, petrol cans and caribou antlers.
In his entranceway I pass a bundle of dried seal intestines. The kitchen is decorated with king crab shells and seagull eggs: trappings of a year round, traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
“It's dangerous out there now,” Tocktoo warns in an earnest drawl, pointing out to the sea ice that cocoons the Iñupiat Eskimo village for half the year.
“We see more people fall through the ice every Spring. It never used to happen. This week we’ve had two hunters fall through.”
The 55-year-old wears a camouflage T-shirt tucked into old jeans. In his living room hip-hop music crackles through a speaker, a faint dispatch from the mainland US.
“One of the men,” he continues, “was an experienced hunter, older than me. He was lucky his machine got caught."
“He was submerged under the water being sucked down, and he grabbed the handlebars and pulled himself out.
“When that happens we can't talk on radio. The way we find out, they shoot three quick gunshots - boom boom boom - that's SOS, ‘I need help’.”
Sea ice in the Chukchi Sea is retreating at a record rate. The ice that does form is slushy and unstable, but villagers are forced to cross it during the spring hunt for the bearded seal, or oogruk.
“That sea ice is like our garden,” Tocktoo explains. “We harvest the seal and the walrus. We go out even if we don't like the ice - we depend on our sea mammals to survive the cold winter.”
This year the ice formed four months later than usual, and is expected to break up a month early. Right now, in spring, it extends 3 kilometres into the sea. Tocktoo remembers a time it stretched for 45 kilometres.
Last century it formed a bridge between Shishmaref and Russia: 160 kilometres across the Bering Strait.
And disappearing ice is just the beginning. The environment here has gone rogue on a much wider scale, flouting the laws the Iñupiat have abided by for thousands of years.
Houses collapse into the sea; flies lay maggots in meat; it rains in winter and storms in summer. Hunters - when they can make it onto the ice - return home with seals that are skinny and hairless.
In Shishmaref, the effects of climate change are thought to be among the most dramatic in the world. A melting layer of permafrost beneath the island means it is at once shrinking and sinking. It's estimated the town will succumb to the ocean within 20 to 25 years, creating scores of climate change refugees.
“Something is wrong,” Tocktoo concludes, looking at me over his glasses. No one could envy his position. Shishmaref’s predicament quickly becomes overwhelming to think about.
What’s more, the vice-mayor’s warning about the dangers of sea ice would ring ironically true later that evening.
After our interview he ate his supper, hopped on his snowmobile and fell through the ice himself.
A TIME LIMIT
Witnessing the frenzied activity of the spring hunt, it’s almost possible to forget Shishmaref has so little time left.
The villagers are racing to get enough seal meat while the ice holds out. Hunters blast on quad bikes down the only paved road, hurrying into the general store to pick up supplies - bullets, Marlboros, cases of Coke - to take with them on the ice. Bicycle gangs of kids tool along after them.
“Hi,” says a passing boy, and I notice his smile is full of metal teeth that have replaced decaying ones.
Shishmaref is known colloquially as the friendliest town in Alaska, but it’s also one of the most deprived.
More than 40 per cent of the population is below the poverty line, bolstered by food stamps and state oil dividends. Housing is overcrowded and devoid of running water, with “honey buckets” used in place of flushing toilets.
I watch hunters going out to shoot oogruks on the sea ice: a blinding landscape of ridges and craters that could pass for the surface of a distant planet.
They travel to the open water, to shoot the whiskery animals as they migrate north. Sealers can spend days hunting, often forgoing sleep. Out there a simple wind change can prove disastrous, breaking up a trail and stranding a hunting party at sea. While the earth retains at least some heat, on the ice it's always nose-drippingly cold.
The men return to shore with sleds full of seals. Their wives immediately butcher them on the ice with ulu knives.
The meat and intestines are hung to dry on racks made from driftwood logs on the shore. A thick layer of blubber is scraped off the seal’s hide and rendered into oil in barrels; the hide will eventually be made into snow shoe bottoms.
The drying process takes about a month, until the meat - turned black and brittle on the racks - is added to the seal oil, which acts as a rich preservative. The food is buried on permafrost beneath a layer of earth and retrieved as needed throughout the winter.
At the drying racks I watch Mina Weyiouanna turning over fresh slabs of seal meat, frowning as she uncovers swarms of insects.
“Oh, you've got to be quick,” she scolds, scraping fly eggs off the meat.
During my research back in Auckland, I saw photos of a house wrecked on the beach, sticking out of the sand at an odd angle as if it had fallen from the sky.
That was Mina’s childhood home. The 58-year-old saw it collapse about a decade ago.
Hers was one of two homes destroyed in a severe storm. Eighteen other houses had to be relocated away from the eroding shoreline, including Stanley Tocktoo’s.
“I cried and cried,” Mina remembers, touching the woollen headband that covers her curly hair. “I said, ‘I grew up a west-ender. I'm not an east-ender!’
“Then one of my friends said, ‘well, at least there won't be sand in your kanitaq [shed].”
She laughs, salvaging some humour in it now. Her new house is further inland (and, regrettably, on the east side of the 19 sq km island), but it remains vulnerable to flooding in stormy weather.
Aside from serving as the people’s hunting ground, the sea ice has another critical function: insulating the island from harsh storms that used to occur only in autumn, but now happen year round.
As the island is stripped of its armour, a single storm can melt enough permafrost to take away 9 metres of land. Almost a kilometre of land has disappeared in the last 35 years.
And even in calm weather, the assault doesn't let up. The tides are getting higher, reaching the shore and lapping away at the island’s frozen foundation.
“We’re losing land from both sides,” Mina tells me. “The island is getting thinner and thinner.”
The situation is so dire that the villagers have voted to relocate Shishmaref to the mainland, and chosen a potential inland site.
The town is seeking federal, state and private funding for the project, with the cost of a move estimated at $250 million.
“We're not doing this to save ourselves,” Tocktoo insists, emotion rising in his throat. He points to a phantom area of shoreline where there was once a row of houses, a road, and high sand dunes.
“We're doing this for our kids, so they can live off the land like we’ve always done.”
Every morning at 9 o’clock Clifford Weyiouanna is in his kitchen, cooking his famous sourdough pancakes.
Most people are still waking up at that hour, having worked late under 24-hour sun. Because of the Earth’s axial tilt, the sun only dips to the horizon around 2.30am, but it never sets fully.
The 74-year-old listens to jangling country tunes from a radio in his kitchen, where he displays the dog mushing trophies won by his late wife.
His friend, Florence, sits at the head of the table slicing meat out of a baked fish. Her husband has also passed away, and now she comes here for breakfast every morning.
“Seal hunting season’s almost ending,” says Weyiouanna, ladling mixture into a pan.
“That ice out there is getting funny. It's thin, and it don't freeze as quick.”
He spins around, delivering another pancake onto the growing pile.
“It's keeping us busy, huh Flo? But we've got the meat for the winter. We're OK. We’re just not young any more.”
Weyiouanna is too old to hunt. It's the responsibility of the younger men in his family to ensure he has enough seal meat, while he guides them with his expertise.
Catching a snippet of news from the radio, I ask him his thoughts on president Donald Trump.
“We just shut the TV off,” he replies. “We don't got to listen to him.”
He sighs, and the three of us fall into nervous silence. It was on the front page of the Alaska Dispatch News the day I touched down in Anchorage on my way north: 'Trump pulls out of climate accord'.
In a blustery speech at the Rose Garden in June, the president said he would withdraw the US from the 2015 global agreement to fight climate change, which his predecessor Obama was instrumental in brokering.
Trump, who has called climate change a hoax created by the Chinese, said the Paris accord would undermine the US economy, cost jobs and weaken national sovereignty.
Shishmaref residents are horrified by the news. For the remote, low-income, indigenous community - already in a tenuous position to lobby and alter federal government policy - Trump’s climate change scepticism is simply another blow.
“That guy, man,” says George Olanna on his porch, putting his hand on his head in despair.
“You can take him to New Zealand if you want.”
Olanna, 70, a village elder and former teacher, has seen his fair share of presidents, and never before has he felt so slighted by one.
He has a US flag that hangs limply by his doorway, near an old grinder that’s used for carving bones and walrus ivory.
“Come on over here, Mr Trump,” he challenges between puffs on his Marlboro. “See this island - we’ll show you how big it used to be and what we’ve been through these past few years. We’re an endangered species.”
“I just got sad,” remarks Tocktoo about the departure of the world’s second-largest polluter from the Paris accord, which most countries have already ratified.
“He doesn’t believe in climate change! I ask Donald Trump to come to my community and see how it affects us and our subsistence lifestyle.”
Tocktoo is worried federal assistance for moving the town will never come, and villagers will be forced to settle in the nearest town on the mainland - a gold mining town, thrice the size of Shishmaref, called Nome.
“We're going to lose our customs, tradition and culture. Not only that, we’ll have conflict between the two groups of people. They might not like us moving into their town.”
While Nome’s population is mostly native, it isn’t a traditional subsistence village. Shishmaref is a dry community, where the ancient Iñupiat way of life has been preserved relatively intact. Nome has a rampant liquor problem.
The pages in Nome’s local newspaper, The Nome Nugget, are filled with stories of drunks: drunks refusing to leave bars, drunks asleep in hotel hallways, drunks acting out loud scenes under the midnight sun.
It’s a grim prospect for new arrivals.
My last night in Shishmaref, and as the weather alternately raises and mocks my hopes of leaving on a plane the following day, I pay Stanley Tocktoo one last visit.
After two weeks the sea ice has broken up and the ocean seems to revel in its newfound nakedness, pounding the shore with an angry swell.
The vice-mayor’s family serves me caribou on the bone and greens picked from the tundra.
As could be expected in a household whose occupants truly live off the land, the conversation revolves mostly around food.
“We’re gonna go out there looking for eggs,” Tocktoo’s wife announces.
She points to the blown gull eggs hanging from the ceiling. “They’re out there on the ice. They’re good ones, and big, too.”
After some goading, Tocktoo begins to describe his accident on the ice following our first interview.
That night, he explains, he went out on his snowmobile to retrieve a sled he’d left on the sea ice.
He was about 60 metres from shore, at a depth of four-and-a-half metres, when his machine got stuck. He felt the ice beneath him crack.
“That slush ice has no strength,” he reflects. “I felt something abnormal. I stood up on my seat, thinking I better be ready to jump off.
“All of a sudden I start busting through and I'm on my seat - well, it's too far for me to jump from there - so I put one foot on the handlebars and jump to the clear ice.”
He suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, a disease of the lungs commonly caused by smoking. Exposure to the frigid water could have caused his body to shut down.
“If I'd delayed I would have fallen through the ice and maybe gone under.”
But he seems undeterred by the incident. In a few days he plans to boat hundreds of kilometres up the coast to hunt beluga whales.
“We’re still gonna go out there takin’ chances to get our sea mammals,” he assures me.
The next day, before I get on my plane, a young man hands me some carry-on to deliver to his relatives in Nome: a tattered bag full of whalebone carvings.
Sitting with this extra cargo on my knee, I wonder if I’ll ever set foot in the village again.
I worry that Shishmaref’s calls for help are getting lost in the vast inertia of bush Alaska.
But it's possible the town’s story is only the prelude to a global saga. A miniature example of the crises awaiting other shores.
By the time the disaster’s implications are felt elsewhere, it could be too late for people like Stanley Tocktoo and his family.
My plane takes off; I watch Shishmaref disappear into the Chukchi Sea.
* Harrison Christian's personal travel to Alaska was made possible by Socrates Fernandez and the friends, family and strangers who supported a crowdfunding campaign.
WORDS AND VISUALS
LAYOUT AND DESIGN