KIVALINA, ALASKA — This tiny and isolated town of 400 cannot be reached by road. It lies on a fragile barrier island along the Chukchi Sea, 83 miles above the Arctic circle. And for generations, the Iñupiat people of the region have hunted gigantic bowhead whales from camps atop the sea ice that stretches out from the town’s icy shores.
But in recent years, climate change has thinned the ice so much that it has become too dangerous to hunt the whales. Soon, the U.S. government says, it may be too dangerous to live here at all, with less sea ice to protect the barrier island from powerful waves that wash across the village.
“Global warming has caused us so much problems,” said Joseph Swan, Sr., a Kivalina elder, at a town meeting last week. The ice “does not freeze like it used to. It used to be like 10 to 8 feet thick, way out in the ocean.”
The question now facing the town, the state of Alaska, and the nation is whether to move the people of Kivalina to a safer location nearby, either inland or further down the coast — and who would pay upwards of a hundred million dollars to do it. It’s a question already facing Kivalina and a handful of other native Alaskan villages, and in the coming decades could apply to numerous other towns along U.S. coastlines. Here, climate change is less a future threat and more a daily force, felt in drastic changes to weather, loss of traditional means of sustenance like whale hunting, and the literal vanishing of land.
“We have a whole bunch of infrastructure that we need to move, that the government should be moving themselves,” said Colleen Swan, who sits on the City Council and also works in disaster preparedness for the community. “I would like to live without having to worry about having to evacuate, or having to run.”
The role the U.S. government will play is still an open question. Interior secretary Sally Jewell came to Kivalina last week to highlight the problems facing the town, and President Obama has proposed $50.4 million in federal spending to help Native American communities grapple with climate change. Yet that is less than half of what’s estimated to be needed to relocate Kivalina alone.
Congress, controlled by Republicans skeptical of federal spending and interventions to stem climate change, may not approve even that. While it is not clear how congressional Republicans will respond to this budget request, in the past they have objected to climate-related initiatives, for instance the administration’s recent pledge to spend up to $3 billion to help other nations adapt to climate change.
“The President’s climate change agenda has only siphoned precious taxpayer dollars away from the real problems facing the American people,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okl.) late last year.
One of Alaska’s Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski, says she doesn’t trust the administration’s moves on Kivalina.
“Senator Murkowski acknowledges the impacts of climate change on Alaska’s coastal communities and believes that the federal government should step up its relief role, but she does not want Alaska’s rural communities used merely as political talking points,” said her spokesman Matthew Felling. But Murkowski does support using federal dollars to help Alaska native communities protect their communities and even relocate if that’s what’s they choose to do, he said.
For the Obama administration, the problem is lack of funding. “While we do not expect that funding of this scale could support actual relocation, it could be used to support long-term resilience planning, planning that could consider relocation as determined by the community as well as other actions and approaches,” said Jessica Kershaw, Interior Press Secretary.
Other funding then might have to come from other sources, a problem that is sure to rear its head more frequently, first in the Arctic — where climate change is stark and rapid — but later as it increasingly affects coastal cities around the country and world. At least one climate relocation is now complete abroad — the small village of Vunidogoloa, in Fiji, was relocated inland last year by the Fiji government.
“There’s no government agency that has the responsibility to relocate a community, nor the funding to do it,” says Robin Bronen, a director of the Alaska Immigration Justice Project, a human rights group, and a senior research scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It means that for communities like Kivalina, they don’t know what steps they need to take to get which government agencies involved.”
If it is not getting enough resources, Kivalina is at least getting more attention. Last week, Sally Jewell made the first visit to the town by an interior secretary in its 110 year history.
“Your story will help the world understand what’s happening right here,” said Jewell at a town meeting in the basketball court of Kivalina’s only school, a day before announcing $8 million in funding to help native communities adjust. “It will help us make the case for climate change in the U.S. Congress. It will help us bring the kind of resources that we have to bring to bear for people like you, and for people in other parts of the world that live in coastal communities that are at high risk.”
Residents of Kivalina suggest the U.S. government may have a special responsibility to relocate them — after all, they say, it helped put them there over a century ago. A 1906 Interior Department report records that $50,000 was appropriated for the “education of natives in Alaska,” leading to the construction of 26 schools, including one at Kivalina.
As one historian notes, the establishment of government schools led to the “consolidation” of previously mobile hunting and fishing communities in larger, stationary villages, like Kivalina.
Today, the town consists of some 85 homes, as well as two water tanks, an airstrip, a post office, and its largest building, the school. Recently the town’s only general store burned down, leaving a large mess of tangled metal and wood. A complete wolfskin hangs outside one home; towards the frozen beach, a group of sled dogs tied to tethers. Elsewhere, a jettisoned car is half buried in snow. The villagers live in cramped conditions without running water in most buildings, and have to haul their own trash and sewage to dump sites.
For Kivalina, the risk is all about the thinning Arctic sea ice — a phenomenon plainly visible from the sky. Along much of the coast, open water was visible just offshore, instead of being fully covered by seasonal sea ice, as is more typical of mid-February in the area.
The scenery reflected what multiple scientific assessments have found about the changing Arctic. It is warming at “twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth,” according to a 2014 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report. One reason is a climate “feedback” in which rising temperatures melt the ice. Then, the loss of highly reflective sea ice exposes darker ocean water beneath. The darker sea absorbs more solar radiation — retaining more heat and leading to still more ice melt.
Arctic sea ice has been declining markedly over the past few decades, which also means that sturdy, so-called “multiyear” ice — which builds up its bulk over many seasons — is being replaced with ice that is “younger,” having formed much more recently. Young ice is thinner and more fragile. Arctic sea ice extent in January was at its third lowest level on record for that month, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, and especially low in the Bering Sea south of Kivalina.
Along with the ice goes the stability of the tiny barrier island itself. Weak sea ice in February presages a longer summer and fall season without protective ice along the shore. And that lengthening ice free period – it has increased from 3 months to “as much as 5 months” one report found — is when Kivalina is vulnerable to fall sea storms, which can hurl large waves at the town. Without sea ice to mute their force, the waves can strip away the island’s very existence through erosion.
“As we grew up, we’ve never seen the water come over the village, but in the last 10 years, it came over the village at least three times,” Millie Hawley, president of the Native Village of Kivalina, said last week in a meeting with Jewell.
For well over a decade, experts analyzing Kivalina’s situation have called it untenable. In 2003, the Government Accountability Office said that Kivalina was in “imminent danger” from erosion and from getting over-washed in a storm. “It has long been apparent that the island would eventually succumb to natural forces, and that the village would have to be moved,” wrote the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2006. In a later 2009 report, the GAO added that no federal agency was taking the lead in addressing threats to Kivalina and other Alaskan native villages, even though everyone could see a potential disaster coming.
A rock erosion barrier, constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to buy the town some time, may have prevented the worst during a powerful winter cyclone in November 2011, which tore down doors and drove waters against the barrier. But the Corps — and everyone in Kivalina — knows that’s only a temporary solution. Kivalina’s villagers have voted to move along the coast a mile to the south, but the Corps has questioned its stability as well.
In the meantime, Kivalina remains torn between tradition and a deeply uncertain future. The struggle is symbolized by two massive whalebone arches — formed from the ribs of bowhead whales caught by villagers more than two decades ago — that lie at the entrance to the town from the airstrip.
“This is in some ways such an unprecedented problem, and a lot of our national policies for disaster have to do with after a disaster occurs,” says Christine Shearer, a researcher who wrote a book about Kivalina and now works for CoalSwarm, which shares information about coal plants. “But with climate change, it’s really about: We need to prepare for what’s coming.”