Alaska village stares down climate change and refuses to budge

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A view of Shaktoolik, Alaska.  (Al Grillo / Alaska Dispatch)
A view of Shaktoolik, Alaska. (Al Grillo / Alaska Dispatch)
When the ocean turns violent and waves slam the ground not far from his doorstep, Mike Sookiayak can feel the blows vibrate in his chest. His youngest children inevitably ask when their eroding strip of a village will wash away.

“It’s like a war zone down there, so loud and noisy it sounds like bombs going off,” Sookiayak said.

The fear has spread through the Alaska Native community of 250 just south of the Arctic Circle during the big Bering Sea tempests that have pummeled Shaktoolik, such as the storm last fall that splintered abandoned shacks, flooded septic tanks and plowed heaps of driftwood onto the ground near houses.

Those storms, especially if they arrive when the shore lacks protective ice, have helped rank Shaktoolik among Alaska’s most climate-imperiled villages. But instead of rebuilding on higher ground as soon as possible, as it once wanted to do and as other villages are trying to do, the community has decided to stay put and fight, hopefully for decades.

The cost of relocation

Shaktoolik, squeezed between the Tagoomenik River and the waters of Norton Sound 125 miles east of Nome, is little more than a finger of land wide enough for a few rows of houses. But rebuilding on the mainland several miles away, with the basic Alaska necessities such as an airstrip, power plant and school, won’t be cheap.

Relocation is estimated to cost some $290 million, said Sookiayak, or more than $1 million for each resident.

At such a price, village leaders realized the notion of rebuilding elsewhere wouldn’t get enough help from state and federal governments, or anyone, he said. Watching other threatened Alaska villages struggle to find the money for their own costly moves, it became clear Shaktoolik’s chances of relocating any time soon were dim.

“We took a hard look at what was happening in Shishmaref, Kivalina and Newtok, and we realized it would have cost too much money for us,” said Sookiayak.

Instead, in a phrase befitting its war against nature, Shaktoolik will stay and “defend in place” for as long as it can, perhaps two decades or more, said Sookiayak. Sookiayak serves on a village planning committee that recently laid out an “adaptation plan” for staying put, with support from the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.

Storm protection

The decision to fend off the ocean could cost less than $1 million, at least for the basics: A pair of bioengineered defense structures that would provide a refuge and temper Pacific waves.

One approach laid out in the new plan calls for building a storm-surge mound from sand and gravel extracted from the beach, creating a man-made hill perhaps 15 feet tall that would become the highest ground in town. The mound would be large enough to protect everyone and could be seeded with plants and armored with large rocks to provide additional stability, said Harvey Smith, a state coastal engineer.

Set back as far from the ocean as possible, it would offer safety if houses are swamped and floodwaters isolate the spit from the mainland and higher ground.

The mound would be akin to tsunami mounds found in Japan, said Sally Russell-Cox, a state planner helping Shaktoolik. “There’s great documentation of those withstanding big tsunamis, and it’s something the community can do because they have a tremendous sand resource,” she said.

Ideally, the village would also build an evacuation shelter atop the mound. One estimate pegs the facility’s cost at $10 million, but the planning committee is looking for ways to reduce that price, according to the adaptation plan.

Also, instead of a costly breakwater used to protect larger coastal communities, the plan suggests building a berm along the beach up to 5 feet high, using gravel, dirt and native beach grass. The long berm would run alongside and stabilize the tangled piles of driftwood spat up by past storms that villagers have organized into a makeshift wave barrier.

Local workers could build both the mound and berm, saving money, Smith said. The village is looking to get its hands on a dump truck to move the gravel, Smith said.

“Do you know where we can get one?” he asked, only half joking.

Protections

The state is providing support to build a 300-foot demonstration berm this summer, involving local workers, and is also working to monitor storm surge levels.

“The idea is that perhaps for less than $1 million you could probably protect the whole village,” said Smith.

Why don’t other climate-threatened villages stay in place, too, and save tens of millions of dollars?

In some cases, such as Newtok, the erosion is too powerful, said Russell-Cox.

A Yup’ik village in Southwest Alaska, Newtok has been called the state’s fastest disappearing village. It sits inland on thawing tundra that’s gobbled up by rivers, and lacks the sand and gravel found at Shaktoolik.

“There are some places where it’d just be cost prohibitive to try to stop the erosion,” she said.

The cost of moving Newtok to stable, higher ground nine miles away at a place called Mertarvik was estimated nearly 10 years ago at up to $130 million.

The village has started that move. It has fought to make the cost more manageable in part by relocating slowly, employing local workers, and by getting free help from military builders under a domestic program called Innovative Readiness Training.

“We’re in a different situation,” said Sookiayak, referring to other Alaska villages that hope to move. “They’re doing what they have to do, and we’re doing what we have to do.”

What it means to stay

Some residents are skeptical about staying.

Shaktoolik has an evacuation plan if flooding ever engulfs the spit, with designated skiff operators selected to ferry villagers up the river to the mainland. But there is no facility at higher ground to offer shelter, according to the adaptation plan. And the risks of safely fleeing a huge storm are high.

“I’m kind of leery about staying put,” said Gloria Andrew, a mother of three young children who has photographed damage from some of the village’s big storms.

During a big daylight storm in 2011, she watched the waves pile up from her house, typhoon-like. And a nighttime fall storm that plowed up the Bering Sea coast last year ripped apart large chunks of the driftwood berm, scattering trunks as if they were toothpicks.

It’s easy to envision severe flooding that turns her home into coffin. “I’d imagine there’d be a lot of debris, so maybe we’d be stuck in the house.”

But she’s hopeful that a vegetated berm combined with the driftwood berm will be stronger.

Sookiayak said relocation is still in the community’s long-range plans looking 20 to 50 years into the future.

Exactly how long the village can stay, Sookiayak doesn’t know. But he does know Shaktoolik has little choice.

“We’re trying to do things on our own,” Sookiayak said. “We don’t have that much money, but we’re doing what we can with what funds we do get from the state or federal government. We’re trying to do what’s best.”

Related Links:

Canada: Government in Canada’s eastern Arctic to issue permafrost guide to homeowners, CBC News

Russia: Melting permafrost eroding Siberian coasts, Deutsche Welle Ice-Blog

United States: Climate-change relocation of Alaska village stops, after state audit finds potential wrongdoing, Alaska Dispatch

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