A conversation with Arctic Youth Ambassador Esau Sinnok

The Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental & Scientific Affairs’ (OES) Office of Oceans & Polar Affairs hosted a conversation on May 16 with one of the 22 U.S. Arctic Youth Ambassadors.  The ambassadors program was started by the U.S. State Department, the Alaska Region of the Fish & Wildlife Service, and Alaska Geographic in support of the U.S. chairmanship of the Arctic Council (AC).

Esau Sinnok shared how climate change is threatening the homes, lives, and cultures of the people who live in the Arctic, and what people like him are doing about it locally, nationally, and internationally.

Sinnok said he traveled to Washington, D.C. for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources hearing about the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s (BOEM) inclusion of the Arctic in the 2017-2022 OCS leasing plan.  If an oil spill should disrupt his community, Shishmaref, he said, the result will be more reliance on the village grocery store and less ability to live off the land through subsistence hunting.

He said that in his community the traditional Native language is no longer the first language that is learned.  Referencing a quote from his grandfather, he added that “once the language dies out, the culture will follow.”

Asked how the people in Shishmaref feel about having to relocate to other areas because of climate change, Sinnok said they miss home when they had to go to other towns in Alaska.  But they had no choice because there are few jobs in Shishmaref.

Investments in infrastructure and facilities aren’t being made in Shishmaref because the investments face a very short timeline.  The question is always asked of “how long are we going to use this” before it is no longer useful.  Their community does not even have running water.

Asked about the cost of moving an entire community, Sinnok responded that Army Corps of Engineers estimated in 2000 that the cost would be $100 million, but now the number is  $200-$250 million.  The community that will be the main focus of relocation efforts in the next few years is Kivalina.

Sinnok shared a video about the negative impacts thinning ice is having on subsistence hunters.  The video featured his grandparents, discussing the tragic loss of their son, Sinnok’s uncle.  He died falling through the ice while on a hunting trip.  In recent years the ice has become thinner and more dangerous for travel.

Asked about any renewable energy, Sinnok said there had been some wind infrastructure, but it corroded and broke down.  In order to transition from diesel fuel, microgrids will need to be created.  Nome and Kotzebue are rural communities that have some wind power capacity.

Asked about other projects in Shishmaref, Sinnok said more seawalls are being added to delay relocation, but nothing has been budgeted for long term engineering solutions.