Sarichef Island is a barrier island in Alaska. It is located just on the Arctic Circle, and is probably the most northern inhabited island in the United States. The island is located about 120 miles north of Nome, on the Seward Peninsula. The island is one of several islands that make up a chain of barrier islands, and is the only one that is inhabited. As a barrier island, estimating the exact size of the island is difficult, since it changes with the tides, but by google maps, it seems to be about 4 miles long (half of which is sand and gravel, with the part above the tide being about half of that), and as little as 1500 feet wide. Its population of around 550 people is over 90% indigenous, belonging to the Iñupiat people. The island has a single village, which consists of an airport, a post office, a store, a school, and a church. The population are mostly employed as subsistence hunters. All transport to and from the island is by air, or occasionally by water.
Sarichef island is also disappearing. The narrow barrier island is at risk from erosion, which has been accelerated due to climate change. The island was protected from wave action by sea ice, but as the sea ice is forming later and melting earlier every year, the island has been more exposed to strong ocean waves. Also, the island is built on permafrost that is gradually thawing, lowering the island and making it more vulnerable to wave action. The island is falling apart, and it is not clear how much longer it can survive. The residents of the town have actually voted to relocate en masse, but the logistics of doing so are daunting. So for now, the island is stuck in limbo, hoping that it can survive another year.
When I think about Sarichef Island, the biggest problem for me to comprehend life in such a location is how many steps beyond my experience I have to go. I have lived in Montana, which means I have been close to some pretty isolated locations, which are about on par with populated Alaskan locations, such as Homer. I then have to take that a step further to imagine how isolated a town like Nome would be, but by the time I get to the idea of a town of 500 people, living on a tiny sliver of island 100 miles away by air from the nearest largest city, I really don't have a reference point.
And perhaps it is this lack of perspective, of even a starting point for perspective, that explains why people can ignore a place like Sarichef Island, whose problems are an early warning sign of the problems with climate change that many more places will be facing. For a while, there was a trend where reporters from the The New York Times and The Washington Post would breathlessly write thinkpieces about how towns like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania were the great, neglected American hinterland. And if Harrisburg is the horizon of people's experience, the lives and problems of indigenous people on a barrier island in Alaska are going to be quite incomprehensible.