A Wrenching Choice for Alaska Towns in the Path of Climate Change

Erica Goode, A Wrenching Choice for Alaska Towns in the Path of Climate Change. The New York Times, 29 November 2016. Part 6 of an 8-part series on Carbon’s Casualties. “Articles in this series explore how climate change is displacing people around the world…. Laid out on a narrow spit of sand between the Tagoomenik River and the Bering Sea, the village of 250 or so people is facing an imminent threat from increased flooding and erosion, signs of a changing climate. With its proximity to the Arctic, Alaska is warming about twice as fast as the rest of the United States and the state is heading for the warmest year on record. The government has identified at least 31 Alaskan towns and cities at imminent risk of destruction, with Shaktoolik ranking among the top four. Some villages, climate change experts predict, will be uninhabitable by 2050, their residents joining a flow of climate refugees around the globe, in Bolivia, China, Niger and other countries.”

These endangered Alaskan communities face a choice. They could move to higher ground, a wrenching prospect that for a small village could cost as much as $200 million. Or they could stand their ground and hope to find money to fortify their buildings and shore up their coastline….

…[A]fter years of meetings that led nowhere and pleas for government financing that remained unmet, Shaktoolik has decided it will “stay and defend,” at least for the time being, the mayor, Eugene Asicksik, said….

In Shaktoolik, as in other villages around the state, residents say winter is arriving later than before and rushing prematurely into spring, a shift scientists tie to climate change. With rising ocean temperatures, the offshore ice and slush that normally buffer the village from storm surges and powerful ocean waves are decreasing. Last winter, for the first time elders here can remember, there was no offshore ice at all….

Shaktoolik — the name means “scattered things” in a native language — has been forced to move twice before in its history. The Eskimo tribes that traveled from the north into the region in the mid-1800s found an Eden of berry fields, tundra where moose and herds of caribou grazed and waters where salmon, seals and beluga flourished.

By the early 1900s, they had settled into a site six miles up the Shaktoolik River. But in the 1930s, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, responsible for providing educational services to Native Americans, built a two-room schoolhouse on the coastal sand spit, and the residents were compelled to move there if their children were to go to school….

But that location, chosen by the federal government, put Shaktoolik at the mercy of the fierce storms that barreled into the sound from the Aleutian Islands.

After a series of close calls in the 1960s — one severe storm destroyed boats and left the airport littered with driftwood, making it impossible for planes to land — another move seemed inevitable.

Two new sites were proposed, one on higher ground near the foothills, the other the spot the village now occupies. [The residents voted in favor of the present location.]…

Big storms on Alaska’s west coast are different from those that threaten Miami or New Orleans. They can carry the force of a Category 1 hurricane, but their diameter is five to 10 times greater, meaning that they affect a larger area and last longer, said Robert E. Jensen, research hydraulic engineer at the Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center….

The land continues to disintegrate. The Army Corps of Engineers assessment, while cautioning that its conclusions were based on limited data, estimated that the spit that Shaktoolik sits on could lose 45 acres by 2057, with rising water threatening fuel tanks, commercial buildings and the air strip.

But the most urgent challenge is keeping village residents safe in the event of a disaster.

Shaktoolik’s current emergency plan calls for people to gather inside the school. But the school building, which sits on the ocean side of the road, is itself likely to be flooded and is not large enough to comfortably accommodate everyone, even if it stays dry….

No one knows where the additional money will come from. Despite years of government reports calling for action, sporadic bursts of financing and a visit to the region by President Obama last year, the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take for Alaska’s threatened villages to stay where they are — or to move elsewhere — have not materialized.