Louisiana’s Vanishing Island: America’s First Climate Refugees
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, has been inhabited by tribal communities since the Trail of Tears era. The island, which used to be the size of Manhattan, has lost 98 percent of its land over the last 60 years, MSNBC reported.
"We had our gardens, we had our cattle, we had our chickens, so we had all our livestock here, we had all of our vegetation so we were good," Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe said. "We were self sufficient in this little community here."
Now residents can't farm on the land. The two-lane road connecting the island to terra firma often floods during storms, isolating the island for various lengths of time, sometimes years. When the road isn't flooded, the water is lapping at the shoulders of the road.
Many Isle de Jean Charles residents have already relocated, but about 70 still remain. They now have to decide between staying or relocating as their island quickly disappears.
But Isle de Jean Charles don't have to relocate on their own.
In a historic decision, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in January it would provide grants totaling $1 billion to eight states, four cities and one county, the New York Times reported. Louisiana is receiving $92.6 million in grant money. Isle de Jean Charles is receiving an $48 million to relocate and reconnect its residents on Louisiana mainland.
New York City, New Orleans and Iowa are the only grantees receiving more money than Louisiana with $176 million, $141.26 million and $96.8 million, respectively.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
"We're going to lose all our heritage, all our culture," Naquin told the Times. "It's all going to be history."
The location of the new community has not be chosen yet, but conceptual designs have been drawn up.
Project planners hope to "maintain and strengthen the tribe's safety, collective identity, social stability and contribution to the region," according to the project's website. Their new community will be self-sustaining, practical and affordable. It will have agriculture, agroforestry and aquaculture uses along with its residential purpose.
"There are no experts in resettlement," Kristina Peterson, facilitator at Lowlander Center, told MSNBC. "Having a planned community where we can say that we are projecting that this will be resilient 100 years out is really an important step. It's a step that then could hopefully be applicable to other communities."
Lowlander Center is helping with the resettlement project. The entire community is projected to cost $100 million to build. Planners hope to choose a site for the community later this year, The Guardian reported.
"You know, you can leave for a vacation and you know you're coming back," Chris Brunet, resident of Isle de Jean Charles who has chosen to leave, said. "You can evacuate for a storm and hope that you're coming back home. So to pack up and move somewhere else, that's totally different."
Previous relocation attempts were voted down by the tribe in 2002 and 2009, according to The Guardian. While many residents have voiced interest in moving, its uncertain how many will try to remain on the island. Residents are not required to relocate.
"I've lived my whole life here, and I'm going to die here," Hilton Chaisson, who raised 10 sons on the island and wants his 26 grandchildren to know the same life of living off the land, told the Times.
Even those not willing to leave have admitted the worsening status of their island.
Charlie Hammons of Houma, Louisiana, has been flying in the region for 60 years.
"As soon as you lift off from the airport at Houma, all you see is water," he said. "I can attest that, being a pilot here all my life, I've watched this land disappear."
Hammons said most residents don't understand just how close the water is because they haven't seen it from his point of view.
"To some extent Louisiana is a little bit of a window to the future," Alex Kolker, professor of earth sciences at Tulane University, said. "This is not something limited to Louisiana, it's something that people around the country are likely to feel in the years ahead."
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Summer has finally arrived in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, liberating hundreds of thousands of northern stream fish from their wintering habitats.
A Good News Story?<p>On the surface, the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.13569" target="_blank">results from our study</a> appear to provide a "good news" story. Warming temperatures were linked to higher numbers of fish, more species overall and, therefore, potentially more fishing opportunities for northerners.</p><p>Initially, we were surprised to learn that warming was increasing the distribution of cold-adapted fish. We reasoned that modest amounts of warming could lead to benefits such as increased food and winter habitat availability without reaching stressful levels for many species.</p>
Photo of Arctic grayling (left) and Dolly Varden trout (right). Alyssa Murdoch / Lilian Tran / Nunavik Research Centre and Tracey Loewen / Fisheries and Oceans Canada<p>Yet, not all fish species fared equally well. Ecologically unique northern species — those that have evolved in colder, more nutrient-poor environments, such as Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden trout — were showing declines with warming.</p>
Fish Strandings and Buried Eggs<p>Recent news headlines run the gamut for Pacific salmon — from their increased escapades <a href="https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/more-pacific-salmon-showing-up-in-western-arctic-waters/" target="_blank">into the Arctic</a> to <a href="https://www.juneauempire.com/news/warm-waters-across-alaska-cause-salmon-die-offs/" target="_blank">massive pre-spawning die-offs</a> in central Alaska. Similarly, results from our study revealed different outcomes for fish depending on local climatic conditions, including Pacific salmon.</p><p>We found that warmer spring and fall temperatures may be helping juvenile salmon by providing a longer and more plentiful growing season, and by supporting early egg development in northern regions that were previously too cold for survival.</p><p>In contrast, salmon declined in regions that were experiencing wetter fall conditions, pointing to an increased risk of flooding and sedimentation that could bury or dislodge incubating eggs.</p>
Headwaters of the Wind River within the largely intact Peel River watershed in northern Canada. Don Reid / Wildlife Conservation Society Canada / Author provided<p>Interestingly, we found that certain climatic combinations, such as warmer summer water temperatures with decreased summer rainfall, were important in determining where Pacific salmon could survive. Summer warming in drier watersheds led to declines, suggesting that lowered streamflows may have increased the risk of fish becoming stranded in subpar habitats that were too warm and crowded.</p>
The Fate of Northern Fisheries<p>The promise of a warmer and more accessible Arctic has attracted mounting interest in new economic opportunities, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103637" target="_blank">including fisheries</a>. As warming rates at higher latitudes are already <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank">two to three times global levels</a>, it seems probable that northern biodiversity will experience dramatic shifts in the coming decades.</p><p>Despite the many unknowns surrounding the future of Pacific salmon, many fisheries are currently <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/03632415.2017.1374251" target="_blank">thriving following warmer and more productive northern oceans</a>, and some <a href="https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic68876" target="_blank">Arctic Indigenous communities are developing new salmon fisheries</a>.</p><p>As warming continues, the commercial salmon fishing industry is poised to expand northwards, but its success will largely depend on extenuating factors such as <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060023067" target="_blank">changes to marine habitat and food sources</a> and <a href="https://www.yukon-news.com/news/promising-chinook-salmon-run-failed-to-materialize-in-the-yukon-river-panel-hears/" target="_blank">how many fish are caught during the freshwater stages of their journey</a>.</p><p>Even with the potential for increased northern biodiversity, it is important to recognize that some northern communities may be unable to adapt or may <a href="https://thenarwhal.ca/searching-for-the-yukon-rivers-missing-chinook/" target="_blank">lose individual species that are associated with important cultural values</a>.</p>
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