These Alaska Residents Are Watching Their Hometowns Slide Into Rising Waters

At least 31 villages now face imminent threats from climate change and may have to relocate, at a cost of as much as $200 million each.

A Newtok, Alaska, local walking back to land after sinking his snowmobile into a pond he thought was frozen, 2015

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

David Andrew is no stranger to erosion. Growing up in Napakiak, a village on the banks of the Kuskokwim River in southwestern Alaska, he’s witnessed the slow-moving disaster of crumbling riverbanks that prompt the relocation of one or two homes a year to safer grounds. But the loss of land after a mighty storm in May was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. Twenty to thirty feet of shoreline disappeared in just a couple of days, wiping out the village’s boat and hovercraft landing and threatening the local school and fuel depot. “It was the fastest erosion I’ve ever seen,” Andrew says.

In August, the village, which has 354 residents, received $449,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build a new landing. Andrew, Napakiak’s tribal administrator, is grateful for the funds; supplies have had to be airlifted in for months, which “brings grocery prices up,” he says. But he knows that the influx of dollars won’t solve the influx of water and wind eating away at village shores. Erosion has always been a problem for this region near the Bering Sea; in Andrew’s lifetime the village has shifted a couple of miles west, into what was once wilderness where people would hunt and gather. Now it’s getting worse.

Climate change has accelerated the normal process of erosion along Alaska’s rivers and coasts. Sea ice that has long provided a barrier against intense storms is dwindling. Permafrost, the frozen layers of earth on which the village is built, is thawing, and the soil is being washed away by heavier rains and floods. “The winter river ice is not freezing as thick as it used to, and spring breakups aren’t breakups anymore,” he adds, referring to the seasonal (and historically gradual) transition to ice-free open water. “They’re like thermal meltdown.”

At least 31 Alaskan villages now face imminent threats from climate change and may have to relocate, at a cost of as much as $200 million per community. While news headlines have featured extreme cases such as those of Napakiak and Newtok—a village bracing to lose its drinking water, school, and airport by 2020—the problems are not limited to the state’s coastal outskirts. With temperatures rising twice as quickly in Alaska as the global average, the dramatic climatic shifts will eventually put people and infrastructure at risk across the state.

The marshy tundra landscape surrounding Newtok, 2015

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

“Coastal erosion is one of the most pressing issues,” says Nancy Fresco, a scientist studying climate adaptation at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “But region by region around the state, we’re seeing changes: Shifts in when species are migrating, which can affect subsistence hunting and fisheries. Loss of sea ice. Changes in hydrology, changes in vegetation, changes in fire cycles—we’re seeing hotter, more intense fires. Ultimately interior Alaska is going to lose all of its permafrost. It goes on and on.”

Given the myriad threats, Alaska, a major oil and gas producer and an overwhelmingly Republican state, has crafted a plan to address climate change. On September 26, the state’s outgoing governor, Bill Walker, accepted recommendations from the 20 members of the bipartisan Climate Action Leadership Team, whom he appointed last December to focus on mitigation, adaptation, research, and response. “The team’s recommendations are a step along a journey that will continue to evolve,” said its chair, Byron Mallott, the now-former lieutenant governor and a tribal activist of Tlingit heritage, in a statement. “Our goals—the same goals of any good government—are to support resilient communities, healthy ecosystems, and continued economic opportunity in Alaska.”

Pulling from the 60 potential actions outlined in the 37-page document, Walker announced a handful of items the state should prioritize in the immediate future, including transitioning to a more energy-efficient economy, addressing villages at risk from the impacts of climate change, and assessing the future of fisheries.

Walker has called Alaska “ground zero for climate change,” adding that this inescapable fact makes the state uniquely positioned to develop innovative responses to the challenge. But along the way, the state will have to wrestle with contradictions related to its fossil fuel–driven economy. Production of oil, most of which is exported to the rest of the nation, funds the majority of Alaska’s budget, and there are no indications the state is looking to stem production.

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Nevertheless, the reduction of emissions will provide returns in the form of reduced energy costs for residents, as the plan notes. Alaska’s residents pay more for electricity than most other Americans. In part to help relieve this financial burden, the state—which ranks second to Hawaii in the share of power generated from petroleum liquids—has set a goal of obtaining 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, up from 33 percent in 2016.

Figuring out how to jump-start the energy transition will undoubtedly pose a challenge. The Climate Action Leadership Team suggested Alaska lawmakers consider establishing a carbon tax, whereby the state could, for example, charge oil and gas companies fees to extract resources. (That idea has so far fallen flat in other states that have proposed it—though Washington appears poised to take up such a measure. Meanwhile, BP has already sent a letter to Alaska’s climate team expressing reservations about a carbon tax.)

Some locally based groups are pursuing the development of cleaner and more cost-effective technology. 60Hertz Microgrids, a start-up founded last year, for instance, is working to match private-sector investor capital with remote communities in need of updating their microgrids—small, freestanding energy sources—targeting those that run on dirty energy. “Think diesel generator out back,” says Piper Wilder, the company’s founder and CEO.

While microgrids are becoming cheaper and cleaner, they are often still too costly for a village or hunting lodge to purchase outright. And there isn’t enough state or federal funding to go around, Wilder says. Her company aims to help remove this barrier for the people in rural Alaska by making it possible for them to purchase and own energy infrastructure, while also facilitating a transition to hydro, solar, or other energy sources less polluting than diesel. Additionally, 60Hertz is developing software to guide remote operators in maintaining microgrids, which would further increase resiliency. If successful, Wilder adds, the applications could extend far beyond Alaska to the developing world, where more than one billion people lack access to electricity.

Extensive erosion after a rainstorm in Napakiak, Alaska

Max D. Neale

Even before the climate plan was inked, Alaskans were already working to address existing and future impacts, Fresco notes. Her research team takes global models of climate change and scales them down to the local level. Certain cities—like Anchorage—are already using Fresco’s data to devise science-based adaptation plans that focus on lowering emissions and improving community resilience.

At the same time, the Denali Commission, an independent federal agency that provides utilities, infrastructure, and economic support throughout Alaska, is working on a statewide threat assessment to determine which communities are most vulnerable to erosion, flooding, and permafrost degradation. The commission’s findings could feed into decision-making processes of state and federal officials, says Max Neale, who works for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium on helping vulnerable communities secure financial and technical resources for climate adaptation. “When they’re looking at a pool of money for house relocation, for instance, they could consider which communities are facing the biggest threats.”

Neale, who wrote the HUD grant application for the funding that Napakiak received in August, adds that the village is in the highly vulnerable category—the most affected by climate change. Despite this designation, however, villagers in Napakiak don’t consider moving away, says Andrew. These residents rely on subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering, and so they really have only one option, he says: “Sticking around, adapting as well as they can.” Neale’s group is helping the community prepare for relocating community infrastructure to a safer site.

A building in Napakiak surrounded by water after a storm

Max D. Neale

That won’t be easy. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study concluded that a seawall isn’t feasible, due to the cost and a bend in the river. Building on nearby bluffs are also a no-go, because foundations would sink as permafrost thaws. So the villagers are left with finding the funding to build a new school before the current one falls into the river and shoring up time and again the banks and path to the boat and hovercraft landing. The slow process of relocating houses, one by one, also falls on their shoulders. Each structure must be jacked up from the earth, transferred to sleds with wheels, and hauled with a bucket loader to one of the sites mapped out in a community adaptation plan.

For many such moves, there’s no federal or state funding available. The owner of a local smokehouse made payments in advance to the village of Napakiak last year to cover the cost of moving the building. But the May storm intervened, and the ground beneath half of the smokehouse sloughed into the river, putting the building in imminent peril of toppling in, too. Fearing the impacts of the next such crisis sure to come, some residents have sought alternative channels of relief. To generate funds to move a house recently, Andrew says, the village held a fiddle dance.

“We’ll keep moving away from the river to the highest ground to the west,” he adds, “and then, well, I don’t know.”

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