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12/8/14 - Alaska Natives and Climate Change: Lack of sea ice exposes Kivalina to fierce storms

Dec 7, 2014

Kivalina, Alaska

Climate change and Alaska Natives: 

Shores bare of sea ice expose Kivalina to fierce fall storms

By Joaqlin Estus

Here’s the first in a series of stories on climate change and Alaska Natives. We’ll start by hearing about impacts to Kivalina, an Inupiaq village of about 400 people founded by missionaries in 1905 and located 80 miles northwest of Kotzebue.

Coastal Chukchi Sea waters near Kivalina once reliably froze in the early fall but now freeze later in the year. The city’s Relocation Project Coordinator, Colleen Swan, said that leaves Kivalina vulnerable.

“The ice is not there anymore,” said Swan. “You know, it used to be already formed, and protected us from the fall storms. But it’s not there anymore in the fall. So we're sitting ducks, basically.”

In recent years, severe storms – some with hurricane force winds -- have caused flooding, erosion, and property damage in Kivalina, leading to several disaster declarations. At risk are fuel tanks, water storage and treatment facilities, tribal and city offices, a health clinic, and homes. Teacher housing had to be moved out of harm’s way. And one year the school was damaged.

Standing near the village’s runway, City Administrator Janet Mitchell recently recalled a night in 2005 when waves 10 to 15 feet high threatened to wash out the runway, a vital transportation link. She said everyone who could turned out to try and protect the shore.

“They laid everything they could find,” said Mitchell. “They dismantled a DC-10 plane that had crashed in 2005. And they tore that apart, with those things that can cut metal -- torch. And they broke it into pieces and laid it out here. We didn't have sand bags at the time; we just had to use local material.”

“One of them was an old, old truck,” continued Mitchell. “They laid it out here. But the surge is so strong, it just got taken out.

“I was going to say I don't see anything that looks like a plane or a truck,” Estus commented.

“Yeah, after the storm was over, they removed them,” said Mitchell. “I think you can see parts of them at the landfill. You can see the big wheels sticking out (laughs). They also took the truck out because you know it got taken out about 20 feet. So they removed everything.”

“But nothing held!” Mitchell continues. “The surge just took everything out. They finally, we had these 8 x 26 feet of sheet metal. They just laid them out next to each other, I think three or four pieces, and that finally stopped the erosion -- a bit -- enough to wait out the storm.”

In 2007, almost half the village evacuated due to a severe storm. Elders and children left in planes until the weather grounded them. Then they were ferried by skiff across the Kivalina lagoon. Next came a 17-mile ride in a multi-passenger ATV, then 52 miles by bus to the Red Dog Mine. Northwest Arctic Borough Public Safety Director Wendy Schaeffer said the biggest building in Kivalina can serve as a cramped temporary shelter, but a road to the mainland is a top priority.

“Even though they can shelter in place at the school, they need a way out of there,” said Schaeffer. “It's a scary feeling when you see a young child in Kivalina and ask ‘What can I do to help?’ and they'll put rocks together on the ground, showing that they're trying to figure out a way to block those waves from getting to them.”

The Army Corps of Engineers bought the village some time by building a rock wall in 2007. But Tribal administrator Millie Hawley said its projected lifespan was only ten or fifteen years.

“It's something that we need to take action on today. It's not something that we could wait for another 15 years.” said Hawley.

Kivalina voted in the 1990s to relocate and has been working ever since to find the $100 million or needed to do that.

In a 2009 erosion assessment report, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers identified 26 Alaskan  communities whose viability is threatened by storm surge, flooding, and erosion.

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