Plight of eroding Iñuit town underscores Obama’s climate message in Arctic

The villagers of Kivalina, Alaska, say that rising waters are forcing them from their homes.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
President Obama embraces Kivalina Tribal Council President Millie Hawley as she introduces him to deliver remarks on climate change in Kotzebue, Alaska on Wednesday. The stop makes Mr. Obama the first sitting US president to visit a community north of the Arctic Circle, a trek the White House hopes will bring into focus how climate change is affecting Americans.

Residents of one North Alaskan island town are hopeful that President Obama’s visit this week will not only help them, but also underscore just how dire the effects of climate change really are.

Villagers in Kivalina, a small community located on the southern tip of a barrier island, are concerned because erosion is already beginning to force people from their homes. There is a rock wall barrier that protects the island from rough surf, but waves increasingly sweep across it, and other storms are getting stronger.

"I think we're in a prominent place to get our issues addressed on climate change," Millie Hawley, president of Kivalina's tribal council, told the Associated Press. "It's all about life safety and food security."

Caribou, a vital food source for the Iñupiat community, once flocked to the village by the thousands. Now, they have stopped coming almost entirely.

President Obama was able to get a glimpse of the island during a flyover Wednesday. He addressed the plight of the Kivalina villagers during a speech in Kotzebue later that day.

"For many of those Alaskans, it's no longer a question of if they are going to relocate, but when," the president said. "Think about that. If another country tried to do wipe out an entire town, we'd do everything in our power to protect it."

Previous efforts to relocate Kivalina have stalled, but there is currently a website, Relocate Kivalina, that aims to consolidate radio, web, and other media projects surrounding the plight of the Kivalina people and give them a wider presence on social media.

Joseph Swan Jr., who manages Kivalina's water plant, was glad that Obama had chosen to spotlight Kivalina during his visit.

"It's great that somebody's finally paying attention, real attention, and letting us know we're not invisible," Mr. Swan said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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