The town of Newtok, Alaska, is well on its way to completely disappearing off the map. Sitting on a delta off the coast of the Bering Sea, Newtok, home to the Yup'ik, an indigenous Arctic people, is being erased by water. They are victims of a climate change worst-case scenario through no fault of their own.
For the last few decades, the rising temperatures of the planet, amplified by Newtok's location near the Earth's poles, have progressed much faster. The Arctic permafrost is melting, the rivers are eroding, and the waters are rising, pushing once distant coastlines up to their front doors and homes sinking and crumbling into the ground at an alarming rate.
Due to this unfolding ecological disaster, Newtok's community infrastructure has severely deteriorated. The community landfill has washed out into the sea, frequent coastal storms and flooding batter them, and essential utilities like water and electricity are unstable.
Its 380 residents have to deal with wet and muddy surroundings constantly. Many homes are demolished, condemned, or unfit to live in because they are in danger of collapsing. Newtok's economy has also suffered, with almost 40% of its population living on or below the poverty line.
Today, the citizens of Newtok have to fight for their survival - not just for their town but also for their way of life and cultural identity as indigenous arctic people. The Yup'ik tradition of hunting sea mammals such as seals, walruses and whales has been affected. They also gather berries and other plants to supplement their diets.
Due to the massive changes in the town's ecosystem, sustaining their traditional diets and way of life is becoming harder. There is no other solution on the horizon except to relocate the entire town and move to more stable and higher ground.
Newtok residents have been waiting and preparing to move for almost two decades, no thanks to the lack of political will and government inaction. The new site is the town of Mertarvik, and after years of construction delays, 18 Newtok families arrived in 2019 and moved into newly built, energy-efficient homes.
Many more still need to make the move, but they have to wait until enough new homes are prepared. The original target date was at least 2023. However, the pandemic might have caused delays.
Many don't want to move but have no choice. Their lives have been forged in Newtok, and they will definitely experience separation anxiety. Still, they are also looking - and moving - forward to a place that can provide better services and is ecologically safe, stable and secure. And even if Mertarvik is a greater distance from their traditional hunting grounds, they are slowly making peace with the situation and, of course, staying patient, flexible and adapting.
Newtok town will slowly fade away as more and more move out, yet it will also stay alive in the spirit and memories of its families.
Directed by: Andrew Burton, Michael Kirby Smith