State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Tidal Communities Make Their Case for Shaping Resilient Coastal Futures

Satellite views of Shishmaref, Alaska, Sapelo Island, Georgia, and the Shinnecock Peninsula on Long Island in New York

Spending much of my life as a  journalist, I long thought of communication innovation as a better graphic or image. I thought of media impact as a revealing story. Both still matter, of course, as so much great climate and sustainability reporting has shown.

But after digging in on social and behavioral sciences revealing the deeper contexts shaping action (or inaction) on urgent climatic and environmental risks, I began to realize the importance of innovation in shaping better conversations, as well.

After building my New York Times Dot Earth blog, which I sometimes turned over to guests without a spotlight, I vowed to listen more deeply and step out of the way of vital voices as much as possible. That’s why I’ve been thrilled, since coming to the Earth Institute, to host “friendly takeovers” of our year-old Sustain What webcast.

One of the best episodes yet was a coastal solutions conversation organized by Kate Orff and colleagues at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation along with Dean Hardy, a University of South Carolina geographer.

The focus was three coastlines where Indigenous and Black communities are caught between rising seas and societal and development threats on land. Scientists and practitioners in relevant fields listened to moving presentations by local leaders from the Gullah Geechee people of Sapelo Island, Georgia; the Shinnecock Indian Nation of eastern Long Island, New York; and the Alaskan Native Village of Shishmaref.

Below is an excerpt from a summary of the event written by Shannon Werle, digital editor for the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP).

Sea level rise, accelerating erosion, saline intrusion, the loss of fisheries and other coastal livelihoods, and repeat flooding present not only economic impacts, but existential threats to the continued existence of these communities and their cultures. The main focus of the conversation was: What is the role of design in reducing harm and building pathways toward economic and ecological resilience?

[Orff, who directs GSAPP’s urban design program, said,] “How can researchers and designers not replicate systems of oppression, and be supporters and partners in each of these communities and places where people are living and thriving?”

Sapelo Island, Georgia: Preserving Culture and Community Through Agriculture

Sapelo Island is home to Hog Hammock, a historic African American Geechee settlement. The Geechee are descendants of enslaved West African people brought to work on plantations. Maurice Bailey, executive director of the nonprofit organization Save Our Legacy Ourself and co-director of the Cornelia Walker Bailey Program on Land and Agriculture at the University of Georgia, and Josiah “Jazz” Watts, founder of the theater-based Sapelo Project, shared their views, together with Whitney Barr, a University of Georgia graduate student whose research explores the island’s agricultural landscape.

The Hog Hammock community has been facing a complex web of challenges that includes coastal erosion, encroaching development, rising property taxes, and job scarcity. “We started being systematically pushed out and off the island,” Bailey said. “There were jobs available, but not to community members, because the owners of the island did not employ the people of Sapelo.”

“We’re dealing with issues like a new owner who has put in an application for a recreational dock, but we’re a historic community on the historic registry, so this should not be happening,” said Watts.

Bailey has turned to agriculture—continuing efforts initiated by his late mother, Cornelia Walker Bailey—as a means of both preserving Geechee culture and introducing more opportunities. “This project has become our voice, and now we are turning this voice into a business to preserve the community,” Bailey said.

Bailey’s work has informed Barr’s research, which focuses on design for racial healing. “I’m working to understand what kinds of crops locals would like to grow, and how farming can bring people back to the land in a way that contributes to financial liberation, reparations, and replenishment of the soil that colonialism took away from the island,” Barr said.

Shinnecock Island Nation, New York: Finding Solutions for a Shrinking Peninsula

The Shinnecock Indian Nation is located on the East End of Long Island, New York, on a finger of land that is a fraction of the original ancestral homeland. Shavonne Smith, a member and the environmental director of the Shinnecock Indian Nation, said the “shrinking peninsula” results from both sea level rise–induced erosion and development.

The crisis has forced the community to make painful decisions, such as the possible relocation of a cemetery set along the peninsula’s southeastern coastline, where ponds are increasing in size because of rising water and marsh growth. This increase could potentially cause graves to be pushed above the surface or submerged underwater. “What can we do to curb the growth of some of those ponds?” asked Smith. “If we don’t succeed, we may have to unfortunately move some of our ancestors.”

In addition to the cemetery, 52 shoreline homes face looming climate dangers. “Those houses are on the edge. How do we adapt them, lift them, or move them further into the interior of Shinnecock?” said Smith. The resources necessary to enact such solutions are not currently available to either the homeowners or the tribal government.

[For more on the Shinnecock, make sure to read “The Tribe that Brought a Damaged Shoreline Back to Life,” a State of the Planet post by Anuradha Varanasi.]

Shishmaref, Alaska: Next Steps for Rapid Coastal Erosion

Shishmaref is located on Sarichef Island, across the Bering Strait from Russia, accessible by boat or plane from mainland Alaska. The Iñupiat community there faces acute and rapidly accelerating changes wrought by climate. The Arctic village lacks trees and hardscape resources to aid erosion prevention and expansion efforts. The alternative—transporting materials by barge—is often cost-prohibitive. Annauk Denise Olin, a member of the Shishmaref Native Village and an MIT linguistics graduate student, and Aunnauruq Twyla Thurmond, a local community coordinator, offered their perspectives.

“Due to the loss of shoreline ice pack, we’re hunting and gathering earlier than ever before,” said Thurmond. This has led to a greater reliance on imported, processed food, whereas the community formerly relied on local trade to supplement their resources.

Olin emphasized that Indigenous peoples can redesign and rebuild their own communities. “We want to work as equal partners with those who engage in Western science,” she said. Shishmaref has not yet received federal funding for a long-term solution. The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not qualify erosion as a natural hazard eligible for funding because, by definition, it’s a gradual process.

“But we’re not seeing gradual erosion in Alaska,” said Olin. “What’s happening here is much more catastrophic, and it’s only one piece of the problem. Waves batter our villages, massive coastal flooding penetrates the soil that holds the permafrost, and the combination results in destabilization.”

Further reading and viewing

A Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory colloquium on Incorporating Alaskan Native Voices in Arctic Research:

A Sustain What episode focused on Indigenous representatives in Indonesia: “How Rights for Forest Guardians Can Break the Pandemic Circuit, Save Species and Slow CO2 Rise“:

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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