Kotzebue Calling

President Obama’s trip to the Arctic will reveal some cold, hard truths about the fossil-fuel industry’s impact on Alaskans.

just_a_cheeseburger/FlickrPhoto: just_a_cheeseburger/FlickrSea ice melting in the Kotzebue Sound, part of the Chukchi Sea

A few months before his death in 2011, Yup'ik elder Caleb Pungowiyi sat over a cup of coffee in a Kotzebue diner and talked with me about what was going on in the Alaskan Arctic. At the time, I had been reporting on how climate change was unraveling some of our northernmost food webs.

“Some events like this happen occasionally,” he said, referring to the unusual warm rain falling outside. It was November 2010, a time when the ice normally firms up and hunters ride snowmobiles across the Chukchi Sea. Instead, a week of rainy and 35-degree weather was turning the ice to slush. “But for something to happen that’s this warm, in November, for a number of days—these kinds of temperatures are not normal,” Pungowiyi continued. “We should be down in the teens and minus temperatures this time of year.”

That was five years ago. Since then the situation in the city of Kotzebue and across the Alaskan Arctic has only grown worse. Sea-ice coverage continues to decline, with three of the four worst years for Arctic freezing occurring since 2010. This year, the ice is on track for its lowest year since the record minimum set in 2012.

For people in the north, that data holds real consequences. During my time in Kotzebue, the hotel rooms were full of backcountry villagers who’d driven snow machines over frozen ice into town for supplies, only to find themselves stuck when the roads melted. Such inconveniences were becoming the new normal. It was, Pungowiyi told me, the time of “the changes.”

President Obama is expected to visit Kotzebue—a hub town for 10 smaller villages in northwestern Alaska—this week as part of an Alaskan swing to push his climate change agenda. If he makes it there (the flying weather’s always iffy), he will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Arctic Alaska.

Pungowiyi won’t be there to greet him, unfortunately. But the sights and sounds the native elder showed me are still available to anyone with eyes and ears. I’m hoping Obama has a chance to see an ice cellar—literally a hole in the frozen ground—where locals traditionally store moose, seal, and other subsistence meats. He should see one now because they’re going away, collapsing as the permafrost thaws. That, of course, is a micro problem with the melting permafrost. The macro is a massive release of greenhouse gases that a Woods Hole Research Center senior scientist described last week as having potential “catastrophic global consequences.”

While in Kotzebue, the president also shouldn’t miss the $34 million seawall that runs along Shore Avenue. It went up about six years ago to stop the Chukchi Sea from eating away the road and its adjacent houses, restaurants, and hotels. (Well, hotel, singular. It’s a small town.) The sea ice that forms in October once protected the beach from rough late-autumn storms. Not anymore.

Photo: ShoreZone/FlickrCoastal erosion and sea-level rise are forcing the town of Kivalina, Alaska, to relocate.

The seawall might be a good place for the president to address what’s happening in Kivalina and Shishmaref, two nearby communities losing the very ground beneath them to coastal erosion driven by climate change. Both villages are preparing to relocate inland. How they’re going to pay for it, nobody knows. It’ll cost at least $200 million to move Shishmaref (population: 600) and $100 million to $400 million for Kivalina (population: 400). The federal government has shown little interest in ponying up the dough, though. Meanwhile, state lawmakers claim they’re broke because the Obama administration won’t let them drill on every last patch of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

To get a sense of how much the fossil-fuel industry pervades the state’s political landscape, take a look at Alaska’s current governor, Bill Walker. He’s an oil and gas lawyer who recently suggested that Obama visit the town of Valdez on the Prince William Sound so that he could see how a scenic landscape coexists with oil operations. That was not a joke. Walker, like a lot of hydrocarbon-loving Alaskans, seems blissfully unaware of the fact that to most Americans the word “Valdez” instantly brings to mind a time in 1989 when oil-soaked birds and pressure-washed beaches did not mix so well with fossil fuels.

Walker and the Alaskan congressional delegation are expected to hammer the president over his reluctance to open much of state to Shell and BP (though he is allowing the former to drill the Chukchi Sea this summer). “Many Alaskans have expressed anxiety and worry about further land-use designations or ocean preserves that would permanently lock away resources critical to our state and local economies,” Representative Don Young recently told the Alaska Dispatch News. When Secretary Sally Jewell of the U.S. Department of the Interior visited Alaska earlier this year, the state senate president and the house speaker gave her an earful about the Interior’s proposal to put the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain under wilderness protection, as well as the decision to keep some areas of the Arctic Ocean off-limits to oil and gas drilling. 

Alaskan politicos want more oil and gas development because they want more money. More than half the state’s budget comes from oil revenue, and it’s been hit hard by the global decline in oil prices. That drop has been driven, of course, by the international supply glut caused by America’s fracking revolution and China’s slowing demand. Ramping up oil production in Alaska would add to that supply, further depressing its price and amplifying the climate change that is destroying villages like Kivalina and Shishmaref. Which the state doesn’t have money to help. Round and round it goes.

While he’s in Kotzebue, President Obama might also consider a simple yet inescapable fact of life in Alaska: Logistics matter. Earlier this summer, a White House advance team dropped in on Kivalina, thinking the president might want to visit. Rumor has it that they diverted the itinerary to Kotzebue because Kivalina’s airstrip was too short to handle the aircraft that moves a presidential entourage. This is something worth noting. Kivalina’s runway is about 3,000 feet long, half the length of Kotzebue’s. The runway at Point Hope, a coastal village to the north, is also about 3,000 feet long.

Point Hope is the coastal village nearest to Royal Dutch Shell's oil exploration site in the Chukchi Sea, the project the Obama administration gave final clearance to a few weeks ago. If an oil spill were to occur up there, Point Hope wouldn’t even have a runway capable of receiving the massive air freighters necessary to move cleanup equipment to that remote location. My colleague McKenzie Funk has written about Shell’s disastrous attempt to move equipment through Alaskan waters. “The Wreck of the Kulluk,” Funk’s masterful piece for the New York Times Magazine, brought home the sheer folly of drilling in the offshore environment of the Arctic. But it’s one thing to read about it—it’s another to journey to Alaska’s far north and stand on the shore of the Chukchi Sea and realize just how far from the rest of the world you really are.

I hope President Obama makes it to Kotzebue to see these things with his own eyes. It will make a difference. Of course, there’s always the chance that bad weather will kick up and his flight will be delayed or canceled. To most of us American urbanites, weather can be an unexpected blessing or a minor annoyance. In Alaska, weather and climate are life and death issues. In Kotzebue, the freeze brings food, travel, and prosperity. When the ice fails to arrive, so do all the good things that follow. 


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