In the town of Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States and 330 miles north of Point Hope, the men and women who build trails on the ice so they can harpoon whales and pull them onto a solid surface now complain of mugaliq, a combination of slush, ice and snow that is harder to work on.
Tied to the water
Point Hope, population 850, ends in a slender stretch of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea. The community’s heritage is clustered in this part of the sparse landscape for a reason: The sea’s bounty once sustained a local population of more than 5,000. But that proximity to the ocean is also why it is losing ground.
The North Slope Borough that encompasses Point Hope and Barrow has spent roughly $2 million building a 275-foot rock revetment near Point Hope’s runway to guard against erosion, and the Army Corps of Engineers spent $433,000 to restore an evacuation road that was damaged by storms and is the main alternative to the airstrip. The community also makes a line of defense out of gravel each summer.
“We pile up this gravel and try to stop the erosion,” Oomittuk said, looking out at the steep piles of brown gravel as the waves lapped against them.
“We see the things that are changing with the climate change, the offshore development, the ice moving out there, the destructive fall storms,” he said.
This summer, the town of Kotzebue put the finishing touches on a $34 million sea wall — primarily funded by the federal government — to protect its beach from powerful fall storms and erosion. Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Siikauraq Whiting, who is headquartered in Kotzebue, said she and other residents are committed to defending their community and way of life.
“The last thing I’m going to say is we’re a people of the past,” she said. “We still exist.”
A dozen villages, however, are declaring defeat and trying to relocate.
Every year, the river encroaches farther and farther into Newtok, a village of 354 people that rests on melting permafrost on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Over the past 16 years, its trash dump and main barge landing have eroded into the water.
Newtok officials have identified a relocation site nine miles away on higher ground on Nelson Island, but they have not received federal funding for the move.
The village’s tribal administrator, Stanley Tom, has started training villagers to build homes on the new site, but he said they are still waiting for federal permits and funding.
“Our village is sinking very fast, and we are now flood-prone,” Tom said. “The government is so slow, they’re taking their leisure time. . . . Where is the money?”
The funds that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sees as essential to remote communities’ survival are considered “bad earmarks” by many in Washington, she said. Nonetheless, she was able to direct $2 million to her state’s coastal erosion program in fiscal 2010, on top of the $500,000 she secured for the town of Shishmaref in fiscal 2005.