Moving Alaskan Villages Away from Encroaching Sea

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Decades of rising ocean temperatures have melted sea ice that once protected dozens of towns along Alaska's northwestern coast from the high seas and winds of November. Efforts are now under way to move entire villages further inland. Alaska Public Radio's Annie Feidt reports.


In northwestern Alaska, it's storm season and many coastal towns are struggling to fight erosion. A violent storm earlier this fall ate away at village shorelines, and residents say the only permanent solution to the problem is relocating entire towns to safer sites inland. But the cost of doing that would be enormous. Alaska Public Radio's Annie Feidt reports.

ANNIE FEIDT reporting:

The sea along Alaska's northwestern coast used to freeze by mid-October, shielding villages from the destructive waves that arrived with fall storms. But warming over the last few decades has kept the ice from forming its protective barrier in time. In Shishmaref, an island community just north of the Bering Strait, a storm this fall toppled one house into the ocean. But as bad as that was, last year's storm was even worse. The town's mayor, Stanley Tocktoo, points out toward the ocean and talks about a section of beach that crumbled away.

Mayor STANLEY TOCKTOO (Shishmaref, Alaska): Because last year we lost in two hours maybe at least 30 feet of land.

FEIDT: Shishmaref does not have much land to lose. The Inupiat Eskimo community is only a quarter mile wide and three miles long. The town sits a few feet above sea level on fine, dark sand.

(Soundbite of machinery)

FEIDT: The community is so isolated, at the Nayokpuk General Store milk costs almost $14 a gallon and gasoline $3.39. Lucy Iyatunguk stands outside the store, smoking a cigarette, and says she's worried about her house.

Ms. LUCY IYATUNGUK (Shishmaref, Alaska, Resident): We never used to hear the ocean waves by my home. Now it's right behind our home that's--if the storm comes around again, the home behind us will be probably submerged in water, partially, anywhere about 15 feet from her.

FEIDT: Up the coast, another Inupiat Eskimo village called Kivalina is facing the same problem. Residents use four-wheelers to get around their tiny town. There aren't many jobs in Kivalina, and people rely on hunting seal, walrus and caribou and fishing for salmon. Kivalina is a traditional whaling village, but resident Kalin Swan(ph) says the town hasn't had a whale meet since 1994.

Ms. KALIN SWAN (Kivalina, Alaska, Resident): Lately, you know, the ice just doesn't build up. Our people are not able to build their camps out on the ice. It's just too dangerous now. The ice doesn't get as thick as it used to.

FEIDT: Erosion in Kivalina is threatening the school, the power plant and the air strip, the town's only evacuation route. Residents recently dismantled a huge resting plane to use as a barrier in front of the runway's most vulnerable edges. Like the people in Shishmaref, Kivalina residents want to move their town into a safer place, and the Army Corps of Engineers has spent seven years and more than a million dollars studying potential relocation sites. In Kivalina, they're working with public works official Tom Bolen. He says the next big storm could wipe out the entire town. He points north of town and says, at the very least, residents need a better evacuation route.

Mr. TOM BOLEN (Pubic Works Official): Let's get a causeway and a little bridge built across this channel right here to--now at least you have an emergency evacuation route, so when the bad storm comes you can all run over there to the other side and get on high ground and you're not trapped on this barrier island. And then once that road is established, we'll start seeing people move to their new community site house by house, piece by piece. Fifteen years later, the whole village will be up there and this will be nothing but a summer camp down here.

FEIDT: But that move will not be cheap. The General Accounting Office estimates relocating Kivalina and its 400 residents could cost as much as $400 million. In the meantime, the town's emergency plan calls for taking shelter in the school building. Residents say so far that plan has worked, but they're always worried about what the next storm might bring. For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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