It's a Wednesday morning in late August, the first day of classes at the Shishmaref School. The doors of the pale blue building haven't opened yet, and the new principal is hurriedly buttering toast in the kitchen for the students’ breakfasts. Teachers are scrambling to make last-minute adjustments to their classrooms, while anxious kids, ranging from pre-K students through high schoolers, wait on the porch, their jackets zipped against the chill of the early-morning air. It's all so incredibly normal, you might not know that, just a few years ago, no one thought Shishmaref would be here anymore.
The remote village of 563 people is located 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle, flanked by the Chukchi Sea to the north and an inlet to the south, and it sits atop rapidly melting permafrost. In the last decades, the island's shores have been eroding into the sea, falling off in giant chunks whenever a big storm hits.
The residents of Shishmaref, most of whom are Alaska Native Inupiaq people, have tried to counter these problems, moving houses away from the cliffs and constructing barriers along the northern shore to try to turn back the waves. But in July 2002, looking at the long-term reality facing the island, they voted to pack up and move the town elsewhere.
Relocation has proven much more difficult than that single vote, however. And 12 years later, Shishmaref is still here, ready to begin another school year.
There are obvious signs that something is amiss, however. One of the first things you see as you arrive in Shishmaref is a small wooden building propped precariously on the edge of the beach. A back corner dangles over the edge of an incline, the water lapping just a few feet away.