Repeating News Story: Eroding Shorelines and Imperiled Coastal Villages in Alaska

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell was in Alaska last week at the invite of the Alaska Federation of Natives to discuss climate change and other issues. During her visit, she made a side trip to the 400 or so person town of Kivalina, located on a low-lying barrier island along Alaska’s northwest coast. The settlement sprung up about a century ago when the Interior Department decided to erect a school there under a program to promote the “education of natives in Alaska.” The same program established schools in other coastal location such as Golovin, Shishmaref, and Barrow.

Now these locations are in the news (see this week’s Washington Post story for example) because they are being threatened by coastal erosion coming at the hands of global warming—and are discussing relocating and who should be responsible for the footing the bill (incidentally, the courts have ruled out the energy industry).

With or without human-caused climate change, bluffs and barrier islands along the coast of northwestern Alaska are inherently unstable and not particularly good places to establish permanent towns. This is probably one of the reasons the natives were largely nomadic.

“Were,” we say, because ironically, as pointed out by the Post’s Chris Mooney, research indicates that the abandonment of the nomadic ways was encouraged/hastened by the establishment of government schools!

Nor are unstable Alaskan shores anything new.

Several major environmental studies were carried out in the mid-20th century and all found extremely high rates of erosion resulting from frequent and intense storm systems. One, from nearly 50 years ago, even went as far as to suggest that a warming climate from enhanced carbon dioxide emissions would make erosion worse and gave this advice:

[C]are should be exercised in the selection of building sites and construction methods. The best sites would be at least 30 feet above sea level and either inland or along a coast which is not eroding. If a site which is low and near the ocean must be used, then a protected position leeward of a point or island would be best.  

Apparently, in places like Kivalina, this advice went unheeded.

We reviewed the situation along the Alaskan shoreline in a piece we wrote back in 2007. What we concluded then remains the case today:

Clearly, erosion has been gnawing away at the Alaska coast for many, many decades and this fact has been known for equally as long. Wind and waves acting on soil held together by ice acts through a positive feedback to expose more frozen soil to the above-freezing temperatures of summer and the warm rays of sunshine, softening it for the next round of waves and wind. And so the process continues. A decline in near-shore ice cover helps to exacerbate the process. Ignoring these well-known environmental conditions has led to the unfortunate situation today where Inuit villages are facing an imminent pressure to relocate. This situation has less to do with anthropogenic climate change than it does to poor planning in the light of well-established environmental threats—threats that have existed for at least the better part of the 20th century.

Despite periodically cycling into the news, nothing really is new.