BARROW, ALASKA — Here in the northernmost municipality of the United States, 320 miles above the Arctic Circle, people are facing the idea that they may soon be among the world’s first climate-change refugees.
Warming air, melting permafrost and rising sea levels are threatening their coastline, and researchers predict that by midcentury, the homes, schools and land around Barrow and its eight surrounding villages will be underwater. This despite decades of erecting barriers, dredging soil and building berms to hold back the water.
“The coastline is backing up at rates of [30 to 65 feet] per year,” says Robert Anderson, a University of Boulder geomorphologist who has studied Alaska’s landscape evolution since 1985 and who first noticed in the early 2000s how alarming the erosion was becoming. “It’s baffling.”
When the sea ice melts, the coast becomes exposed to waves, wind and storms that slam into the shore, causing erosion. As ice moves farther from shore, waves can be as high as 20 feet when they reach land, Anderson says.
“The only thing we can do, as far as I’m concerned, is move our towns inland,” says Mike Aamodt, the former acting mayor of Barrow and its surrounding villages of the North Slope Borough, which stretches over 89,000 square miles, an area larger than Utah.
Pointing out a window in his second-floor office, Aamodt isn’t joking when he declares that the sole refuge from erosion and rising seas is the Brooks mountain range — more than 250 miles south.
Barrow, with a population of just over 4,000, is as remote as it gets. There are no roads leading in, and it’s accessible only by air and, during the summer months, by sea. There’s a post office, a police station, a fire station and a high school with an indoor track and a swimming pool for its 200 students, plus a rec center, a 14-bed hospital, a few churches and a handful of mom-and-pop restaurants. There’s no movie theater for 1,000 miles, no bars (or legal alcohol sales), no nightlife to speak of.
There are oil fields 200 miles to the east in Prudhoe Bay, but aside from a few corporate logos on buildings, there’s no sign of Big Oil in town. Most visitors come here to experience the stark beauty and power of nature — seas so iced-over in winter that you can walk on them for miles, tundra brown and green in summer, and the stunning variety of animals, including whales, seals, caribou, polar bears and walrus.
Scientists flock here to study climate change. Low temperatures average nearly 20 degrees below zero in winter; summer highs are mostly in the 40s, though it reached 79 once in 1993. Locals — and hard data — say there’s less snow and ice now than ever before.
The area has long been home to Inupiaq natives who have lived off the abundant marine life. Modern Barrow was built on commercial whaling in the late 1800s, but there’s evidence of indigenous settlements going back as far as 800 A.D. The giant bowhead whales native to this part of the Arctic are actually prospering with warming seas here. But it’s a different question for the humans.
A stroll along one of Barrow’s handful of roads shows just how tenuous civilization’s perch is. Bulldozed mounds of sand and soil more than 20 feet high are all around town. But these sea walls are frequently penetrated as swells and storms overtop the walls, sometimes sending houses, built on stilts because of the impenetrability of permafrost, floating inland for miles.
With ocean to the north and half a dozen major lagoons and lakes to the south and east, Barrow’s residents face danger on all sides. Yet the biggest worry may be from the ground itself.
“Sometimes I have that eerie feeling — I’m, like, ‘Oh gosh, we’re on the permafrost,’ ” says Diana Martin, a Barrow-born Inupiaq who works in the town’s museum, over a bowl of caribou soup at her sister’s home about a mile from the coast. “What if we start floating away?”
Science backs up her concern: This year is on pace to be the hottest on record.
As air and sea temperatures have notched up, there has been a warming of the permafrost, the thousands-of-years-old subsurface layer of frozen soil, rocks and water. That layer can be as much as 2,000 feet deep in parts of this area.
Gary Clow, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist who has spent 30 years measuring temperature here, says permafrost has warmed about five degrees since 1990. That makes soil soften, rise and shift, which Aamodt says affects everything that has been built on it: utility systems, roads, airports.
It’s a change Aamodt fears: If fuel dumps or sewage lines leak into freshwater sources, major pollution ensues. With hundreds of miles of coast not many feet above sea level, the potential impact on health and lives is great.
When cyclones came through in 2000 and 2004, knocking out Barrow’s power supply, the result was flooded and contaminated drinking water. States of emergency are common occurrences here, and given the rising seas and coastal erosion, every year brings the threat of a storm that could wipe the town off the map, Aamodt says.
Barrow’s climate-change problem has been years in the making, says Anne Jensen, an ethnographic archaeologist who arrived in Barrow in 1983 and has been excavating some of the earliest human settlements found in this frigid area.
The increasing floods and erosion have made her job a scramble against nature. By the time she secures funding and gets ready to enlarge a dig, a site that is often now at water’s edge, surging oceans washes everything away. It’s a frustrating way to make a living, she says. “The entire north coast of the North Slope — most of the sites are already gone. We have a big knowledge gap up there.”
Faced with what they see as the inevitable, some people have begun relocating inland. Aamodt has moved his hunting cabin six times since the 1970s. When we speak, he shakes his head, wishing that it would be as easy and affordable to pick up and move Barrow and its neighboring communities.
Moving any one of these towns, though, would require more resources than the state or federal government would be willing to provide, he says. Relocation is already being planned in other parts of Alaska, including one town 400 miles south of here on the Bering Sea. And although President Obama has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to help communities facing the impact of the changing climate, that won’t be enough, Aamodt says.
At $403 million, the Borough’s annual budget — much of it funded by a tax on oil and gas development in Prudhoe Bay — sounds enormous, but it’s only enough to keep these far-flung hamlets going in their harsh environment.
One of Barrow’s nearby villages, Point Lay, “is [a mere] 400 people, 40 houses, big buildings, an underground utility system, pipes,” he says. But it’s “probably $500 million to move that town. Then we have Wainwright: We need to move that town, too. It’s on a bluff right against the ocean. That’s 700 people, so I imagine $700 [million] to $800 million.”
Aamodt takes off his glasses, then stares out the window toward the sea, quite calm on this afternoon. There’s no magic rescue, he says. There’s not even a Coast Guard outpost here should watery disaster strike: The closest is 1,000 miles away. Locals, known for extreme self-reliance, feel as if they are being left on their own to face a future as refugees from climate change.
Can these towns be saved? Aamodt fidgets in his seat, looking down. “It’s fruitless to even think about it,” he replies. “Our turn is coming. That could happen this year. It’s inevitable.”