My World Interrupted

Esau Sinnok, Arctic Youth Ambassador

Close your eyes and picture your best memory with your family and friends. If you're like me, that memory is filled with the warmth and comfort of a familiar home. I hope that, unlike me, you are never asked to put a price on that home because of the effects of climate change.

Esau Sinnok, Arctic Youth Ambassador in Shishmaref, Alaska

Welcome to Shishmaref, Alaska, population: 650. We're a small Iñupiaq community where everyone knows each other. Shishmaref is a barrier island that has been eroding and flooding for the past 50 years -- even before disruption from climate change was widely recognized.

Over the past 35 years, we've lost 2,500 to 3,000 feet of land to coastal erosion. To put this in perspective: I was born in 1997, and since then, Shishmaref has lost about 100 feet. In the past 15 years, we had to move 13 houses -- including my dear grandma Edna’s house -- from one end of the island to the other because of this loss of land. Within the next two decades, the whole island will erode away completely.

Coastal erosion in Shishmaref

During my lifetime, I’ve seen unusual weather patterns that villagers have never witnessed before. It rained during winter last year and ice formation is coming later in the year. My grandfather remembers when 30-35 years ago ice used to form fully in late September or the middle of October. It is December, and the ice barely formed enough for us to safely cross it.
 
The lack of ice has affected our hunting, fishing and other traditions. We use handmade wooden boats to hunt and fish in the surrounding areas of Shishmaref as well as  snowmachines to get around in the winter time. Every year it gets harder and harder to collect enough meat for the winter. Tomcod and whitefish are a large part of our winter diet, but since the ice forms later in the year, it’s more difficult for us to gather enough food.

Members of the Iñupiaq community ice-fishing

Our village is so remote that it is only accessible by airplane, and we only get fresh food products from other parts of Alaska every one to two months. If we can’t hunt and fish to feed ourselves in the winter, we will starve.

In 2001, my people voted to relocate along the coast of mainland Alaska, but the estimated cost is $200-250 million. The reality of moving is very complicated. There is not enough funding for relocation efforts. And even though we made this decision, everyone wants to stay -- especially the older generations who have spent their whole lives in Shishmaref.

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. Once you see how vulnerable my community is to sea-level rise and erosion, you won't be able to deny that Arctic communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change.

Aerial view of Shishmaref

Despite this reality, I appreciate every day that I get to wake up and see the scenery that's still here and that I'm able to call this place home. For now. While it's too late to save the island of Shishmaref, we still have a little bit of hope that we'll be able to preserve our traditions and stay united as a culture.

That's why I am determined to speak up for my community.

This year, I became an Arctic Youth Ambassador -- a program started by the Interior and State Departments in partnership with Alaska Geographic. It gives Alaskan youth the chance to share our perspectives on issues in our communities. As an ambassador, I not only attend the Arctic Council meetings, but I’m also invited to travel with the Arctic Council.

This week, I am in Paris, France, for the United Nations climate talks. It’s only the second time in my life that I have left Alaska, and it’s been a powerful experience. This week, I met with Secretary Jewell and other indigenous people. This meeting gave me insight into how issues of the Arctic and climate change are being handled by our world leaders.

Esau at COP21 with Sierra Student Coalition

My reason for attending the 21st Conference of Parties in Paris -- COP21 -- is to tell leaders that climate change is affecting the Arctic more than other places of the world, and if the ice in Greenland melts, these villages and islands will be under water.

I hope that world leaders will hear my message and rise to the challenge because it is not just a political issue to me. It's my future.

Learn more about U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Arctic Youth Ambassor program at https://www.facebook.com/arcticyouthambassadors.