Island Details: Sarichef Island

Sarichef Island
Arctic Ocean
Number of Islands (approx.)
Island Details
Part of a 100 km-long system of flat barrier islands along the Chukchi Sea-facing coast of Alaska.*
Type of Islands
Surface Area (km²)
Long and narrow coastal island with low-lying, flat and barren terrain.*
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Highest Elevation (name)
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Climate Risk Index Rank (1993-2012)
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Population (total)
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Population Density (p/km²)
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GDP (per capita in current US$)
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dependent (territory of the US)*
Global climate change is doubtlessly one of the most debated issues of our time. Apart from other impacts, the IPCC and other institutions are forecasting sea level rise that could massively threaten populations in coastal areas. Small islands are particularly vulnerable on account of their geographical specificities, such as their small size, long coastlines, particularly sensitive ecosystems, and issues surrounding food security and freshwater supply. Moreover, small island societies usually lack the necessary financial means to effectively protect themselves from the impacts of sea level rise and extreme weather events. So far, the public discourse surrounding the impacts of climate change on small islands has almost exclusively focused on warm coral islands and atolls in the tropics, such as Tuvalu or the Maldives. Sarichef Island highlights the fact that cold islands can be just as badly affected by climate change as their warmer cousins. The ssland is only seven kilometres in length and part of a 100 km-long system of barrier islands. It is situated on the Bering Strait which for a long time separated two rivalling superpowers; the International Date Line still runs through it. The island was given its current name by the Baltic-German explorer Otto von Kotzebue; he named it after his Vice Admiral in 1816 and claimed it for the Russian Tsar. At that time, the island had already been inhabited for about 200 years by the Iñupiat who had a settlement there and almost exclusively subsisted on whaling, fishing and sealing. Already then, the flat island was potentially highly vulnerable to storm surges and extreme weather events. But the sea ice, present nearly all year round, acted as a powerful protective shield against the surging waves. Additionally, the houses of the indigenous population were erected on permafrost soil which is not susceptible to erosion. Today, this natural defence has all but disappeared. In northern climes global warming is making itself felt at double the global average. As a consequence, more and more sea ice is melting, affording less and less protection to the island from storm surges. Moreover, the permafrost is thawing, rendering the coastline highly susceptible to erosion which is in turn exacerbated by rising sea levels. Despite artificial coastal defences the island is therefore losing 3.3 metres of land a year, and many houses and roads have already been washed away. There is mounting evidence that the island will become uninhabitable in only a few decades’ time. For this reason, the majority of the 600 inhabitants voted to move their village to the nearby mainland in a 2016 referendum. At this stage, however, it is entirely unclear how this will be financed: The responsible authorities have made available a meagre $8 million out of the $200 million needed, so it is unlikely that the resettlement will take place any time soon. The heated debate surrounding the future of the small island society shows that the devastating effects of climate change have firmly arrived in the northern hemisphere.*