At the tip of a barrier island above the Arctic Circle, a village is melting into the sea. What one town’s struggle for survival means for us all.
The village of Kivalina has never been very secure. A ramshackle settlement of 100 buildings, it includes a school, a post office, a health clinic, a grocery store, a laundry, two churches, and a bingo parlor, all perched on a thin strip of permafrost between the Chukchi Sea and the mouths of the Wulik and Kivalina rivers. Just off the northwestern coast of Alaska, it’s truly a town on the edge. For most of the year, Kivalina is surrounded by ice; when it melts during the brief summer, waves gnaw the shore from the west and rivers tug at it from the east.
Erosion, which has shrunk the island by nearly 20 acres over the past 50 years, is something former school principal Gerry Pickner has witnessed firsthand. As the first big fall storm approached in 2004, the ground behind his trailer collapsed. Where there had once been a broad beach between the town and the ocean, the earth behind the buildings now dropped directly into the water, and Pickner suddenly found his home teetering on a steep bank with seawater splashing against its windows. While teachers scrambled to move his belongings into the school, the ocean advanced on the town’s fuel tanks and generators; meanwhile, at the island’s north end, waves threatened a gravel airstrip,
Kivalina’s main connection to the outside world. In desperation, neighbors sawed apart a plane that had crash-landed several years earlier and used its sheet metal to build a shield between the water and the runway.
After the same hair-raising pattern of events occurred the following year, the state government’s Northwest Arctic Borough set about building a protective seawall, a ten-foot-tall bulwark of fabric-lined baskets filled with sand and reinforced with wire. On the day of its scheduled completion-September 12, 2006-a celebratory barbecue was planned. “The seawall is done!” trumpeted the flyer that announced the party. “We are safe!” The appointed day, however, brought a gray sky and a restless ocean. As swells began to surge against the wall, a powerful undertow pulled the sand out from underneath. Within a month, the $2.5 million barrier-a “sand castle,” in Pickner’s estimation-was dismantled by the sea.
“It’s been an incredible three or four years,” says Colleen Swan, the tribal administrator for Kivalina’s Inupiat residents, Alaska Natives who make up 97 percent of the town’s population. “You think you’ve addressed a problem, then something else happens that you didn’t expect. No matter what our volunteers did, the ocean sucked it away as if it were coming after us.”
Kivalina’s precarious situation has been worsened by a changing climate. Historically, the Chukchi Sea had turned solid by early winter, with slush forming along the shore in the fall, creating a kind of bumper cushion that protected the island from autumn storms. Over the past half century, however, the average annual temperature here has risen more than three degrees Fahrenheit, to 23.5, with a wintertime increase of almost seven. Last year it rained in January for the first time in memory, and in summer 2007 the thermometer approached 80 degrees. As a result, sea ice forms later in the year, while storms occur earlier: a literal double whammy.
Kivalinans know they have to move. In the 1990s, even before global warming was widely recognized, they targeted a pair of potential relocation sites to the east and south, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found geological problems with both. Now the village is fast running out of time. “Before, leaving was optional,” Swan says. “Now it’s an emergency situation.”
After another storm forced an evacuation of the island in the fall of 2007, you might say that Kivalina reached the end of its rope. Which is why, on February 26, 2008, this community of 400 Native Americans filed suit in federal court against 24 oil, electricity, and coal companies, including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, British Petroleum, Chevron, and Shell. Demanding up to $400 million in damages-the estimated cost of moving the village out of reach of the rising sea-the lawsuit accuses the companies of contributing to global warming and creating a public nuisance that has harmed property in the town.
It’s an audacious move-after all, even snowmobile-using Kivalinans bear some responsibility for climate change. But the lawsuit goes further, charging that some of the corporations “conspired to create a false scientific debate about global warming in order to deceive the public.”