Almost no one in America has heard of the Alaskan village of Kivalina. It clings to a narrow spit of sand on the edge of the Bering Sea, far too small to feature on maps of Alaska, never mind the United States.
Which is perhaps just as well, because within a decade Kivalina is likely to be under water. Gone, forever. Remembered – if at all – as the birthplace of America’s first climate change refugees.
Four hundred indigenous Inuit people currently live in Kivalina’s collection of single-storey cabins. Their livelihoods depend on hunting and fishing.
The sea has sustained them for countless generations but in the last two decades the dramatic retreat of the Arctic ice has left them desperately vulnerable to coastal erosion. No longer does thick ice protect their shoreline from the destructive power of autumn and winter storms. Kivalina’s spit of sand has been dramatically narrowed.
The US Army Corps of Engineers built a defensive wall along the beach in 2008, but it was never more than a stop-gap measure.
A ferocious storm two years ago forced residents into an emergency evacuation. Now the engineers predict Kivalina will be uninhabitable by 2025.
Kivalina’s story is not unique. Temperature records show the Arctic region of Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the United States.
Retreating ice, slowly rising sea levels and increased coastal erosion have left three Inuit settlements facing imminent destruction, and at least eight more at serious risk.
The problem comes with a significant price tag. The US Government believes it could cost up to $400m (£265m) to relocate Kivalina’s inhabitants to higher ground – building a road, houses, and a school does not come cheap in such an inaccessible place. And there is no sign the money will be forthcoming from public funds.
Kivalina council leader, Colleen Swan, says Alaska’s indigenous tribes are paying the price for a problem they did nothing to create.
“If we’re still here in 10 years time we either wait for the flood and die, or just walk away and go someplace else.
“The US government imposed this Western lifestyle on us, gave us their burdens and now they expect us to pick everything up and move it ourselves. What kind of government does that?”
North of Kivalina there are no roads, just the vast expanse of Alaska’s Arctic tundra. And at the most northerly tip of US territory lies the town of Barrow – much closer to the North Pole than to Washington DC. America’s very own climate change frontline.
Barrow’s residents are predominantly from the Inupiat tribe – they hunt bowhead whale and seal. But this year has been fraught with problems.
The sea ice started to melt and break up as early as March. Then it refroze, but it was so thin and unstable the whale and seal hunters were unable to pull their boats across it. Their hunting season was ruined.