In honor of Native American Heritage Month I’m featuring a Native American missing person for every day in the month of November. Today’s missing person is Tom John, a 59-year-old Yupik man who disappeared from his tiny Alaskan village, Newtok, on March 26, 2017.
When I was researching John’s case, I discovered that Newtok itself is disappearing. It’s right on the ocean, and due to climate change, water levels are rising, and the permafrost is no longer permanently frozen, which is causing the land to sink. Newtok is being reclaimed by the sea and will probably be gone entirely in the next decade or so. The entire village will have to evacuate or they will all drown.
This is a problem many Alaskan villages are facing, or will face in the near future. Al Jazeera actually did a half-hour documentary about Newtok and other villages with this issue, titled When the Water Took the Land. Unfortunately, the villagers are kind of screwed, because moving the village elsewhere is going to cost millions of dollars, which they don’t have, and there’s no government program set up to help climate refugees.
Tom John himself, as a village administrator, was interviewed for this documentary (in 2015, about a year and a half prior to his disappearance) and said he thought the new village the Newtok residents planned to build would probably take about twenty years to get fully operational. And they don’t have that kind of time.
In this documentary they talk about how, because the sea ice is melting, the ocean has become much rougher and more dangerous than it used to be. Waves are bigger and stronger. Storms are more intense and destructive.
It got me back to thinking about Tom John’s disappearance. He went out seal hunting and never came back. They found a seal carcass and his snow machine, but no sign of John or his kayak.
Obviously he met with some mishap at sea, and I had to wonder if it was because his task was made all that much more difficult by the rougher ocean and the lack of sea ice. (The fact that he was operating a new kayak he was unfamiliar with cannot have helped.) Tom John’s disappearance may have been indirectly caused by climate change.