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Sometimes it’s a mega project like the detonation of an atomic bomb or the construction of a hydroelectric dam; sometimes, you’re just blocking a castle’s view. These five coastal villages each had a different reason to pick up and move in toto.
In 1743, the 3rd Duke of Argyll’s project of building a grand new castle—complete with soaring towers, 6.5 hectares of garden, and, at 21 meters, Scotland’s highest ceiling—hit a snag. The shabby town of Inveraray was too close, obstructing the grandiose grounds and the view of Loch Fyne. So the duke dealt with this 18th-century version of a First World problem decisively: he commissioned plans to move the town. Luckily, the story ends well for the townspeople. The new Inveraray, relocated just down the shore, had a new pier and better housing. The pier proved especially lucrative, letting Inveraray take part in the growing herring industry.
The Japanese know tsunamis. After all, it’s their word. Ancient coast dwellers left engraved “tsunami stones” along the shore, some warning future generations of the high point of past deluges. But old warnings lose their impact and, one evening in 1896, a tsunami eight stories high killed more than 20,000 people. Afterward, the residents of Yoshihama, one devastated village, heeded the ancients and moved their village up a nearby hill. The job took decades, but it paid off. In 2011, the massive Tōhoku tsunami struck. Along the coast, more than 18,000 people died, but in Yoshihama only the seawall, the seaside fish market, and a few homes were damaged.
Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands
In 1946, the United States had invented the biggest atomic bombs in existence and remote Bikini Atoll was a perfect testing ground—except for its 167 residents. Commodore Ben Wyatt, the Marshall Islands’ military governor, came to the not-quite-deserted atoll to request that Bikinians temporarily relocate for “the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” After much debate they packed their belongings, as well as bits of their church and council house. They suffered lean years on smaller, food-scarce atolls before settling on nearby Kili Island. Almost 70 years on, the move seems permanent. In 2012, the United Nations noted that the Marshall Islands had “near-irreversible … contamination.”
Fort George, Canada
Mega projects tend to proceed despite protests from mini villages, and Quebec’s multi-billion-dollar James Bay hydroelectric project was no exception. It promised abundant hydroelectricity by diverting several rivers into one—the La Grande. For Fort George, an island community in the La Grande’s mouth, rising waters created dangerous ground. The provincial government advised moving, but the residents—primarily the Cree Nation of Chisasibi—had deep roots; generations were buried in the island’s cemeteries. Finally, after bitter deliberation, the village consented. It moved to the mainland in 1980 where it was renamed Chisasibi. Villagers still gather on the island each summer for the Mamoweedow Minstuksh festival.
River deltas shift as watercourses change. Delta residents know this, but cyclones can shift things too far. In 2010, Cyclone Phet swamped Phirt, a fishing village in Pakistan’s Indus Delta. The storm badly eroded the muddy ground and, even after residents rebuilt their homes, the village kept flooding, forcing Phirt’s 30 or so households to move a kilometer upstream. It may not be their last move. The sea has swallowed Phirt and more than half of the 42 villages that share its district. Upstream dams keep sediment from replenishing the delta, and, combined with supercharged cyclones packing climate-change-induced punches, chronic erosion is shrinking the Indus.