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Human and Economic Indicators - Shishmaref

Socio-economic | Shishmaref | Arctic Marine Access | Canadian Marine Access | Roads

Village of Shishmaref, North Alaska


Original story:

The village of Shishmaref in N. Alaska, inhabited for 400 years, is facing evacuation due to rising temperatures, which are causing a reduction in sea ice, thawing of permafrost along the coast. The reduced sea ice allows higher storm surges to reach shore and thawing permafrost makes the shoreline more vulnerable to erosion. The town's homes, water system and infrastructure are being undermined.

Shoreline in village of Shishmaref, Alaska before storm Shoreline in village of Shishmaref, Alaska after storm
Village of Shishmaref, Alaska. Notice the trash can in the image on the left, before the storm, and in the image on the right, after the storm. Images courtesy of Nome Nugget Newspaper. (2002-11-14)

Sarichef Island (on which Shishmaref is located) is part of a dynamic, 100km-long barrier island chain that records human and environmental history spanning the past 2000 years - the oldest subaerial evidence for the formation of this system is about 1700 14c yr bp (see References, below). Erosion at Shishmaref is somewhat unique along the islands because of its fetch exposure and high tidal prism, relatively intense infrastructure development during the 20th century, and because of multiple shoreline defense structures emplaced since the 1970s.

Erosion rates along the island front exceed (and are not comparable with) those along adjacent sectors. Erosion is occurring along the entire island chain, but it is exacerbated at Sarichef Island in part because of the hydrographic impacts of hard armoring of a sandy shoreface and permafrost degradation that is accelerated by infrastructure. Residents are experiencing the effects of coastal retreat on residential and commercial properties and there is a need to develop solutions, potentially including the difficult choice to abandon the island.

House on shoreline in Shishmaref, Alaska
"I went to school on the mainland, and when I came back, my house was gone. They moved it to the other side of the village, or it would've fallen in." Leona Goodhope, Shishmaref, Alaska (from ACIA).Image courtesy of Nome Nugget Newspaper. (2002-11-14)

Sachs Harbour, Canadian North West Territories

"Dramatic changes being witnessed by the people of Sachs Harbour [Canada North West Territories]: exotic insects and animals have arrived on their island; the sea ice is thinner and further from the community, carrying with it the seals and polar bears upon which the people depend for food; and permafrost melting has caused an inland lake to drain into the ocean and foundations of the community’s buildings to shift and crumble. Life for the people of Sachs Harbour has become increasingly difficult and unpredictable." Community Adaptation and Sustainable Livelihoods


  • Jordan, J.W., and O.K. Mason, 1999. A 5000 year record of intertidal peat stratigraphy and sea- level change from northwest Alaska. Quaternary
    International 60:37-47
  • Jordan, J.W., 1989. Rhythmic berm ridge deposition on the coastal barriers of northern Seward Peninsula, Alaska. In: Coastal Sediment Mobility;Proceedings of the Eighth Symposium on Coastal Sedimentology, W.F. Tanner ed., Department of Geology, Florida State University, Tallahassee. pp.137-150.
  • Jordan, J.W., 1987. Erosion characteristics and retreat rates along the north coast of Seward Peninsula. Chapter 7, In: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve: an Archeological Survey, J. Schaaf ed., National Park Service,Alaska Region, Anchorage.
  • Mason, O.K., J.W. Jordan, and L. Plug, 1995. Late Holocene storm and sea level history in the southern Chukchi Sea. In: C.W. Finkle ed., Holocene Cycles: Climate, Sea Level, and Sedimentation. Journal of Coastal Research, Special Issue No. 17.
  • Mason, O.K. and J.W. Jordan, 1993. Heightened storminess and synchronoustruncation of northwest Alaska beach ridges. Quaternary Research, 40:55-69.

Find more information (references and websites)

Updated December 2006 with input from Dr. James W. Jordan, Antioch University, New England