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.
Meanwhile, the federal government is studying what can be done.
Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes announced July 30 that a federal interagency group on Alaska will work with the Arctic Research Commission to create a central hub of scientific information to inform public decision-making. It also will launch an effort to evaluate the environmental, social and economic impact of Arctic infrastructure development, given the changing climate.
“When it comes to permafrost loss, what can we do about that? What we can do is better understand it,” Hayes said. “What’s most important now is scoping out the extent of the issue.”
Studying the changes
Interior’s Arctic Landscape Conservation Cooperatives program is using computer models to project everything from where polar bear mothers will den this winter to how a changed landscape will shift species’ distribution in Alaska by mid-century.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s happening to the land, and what will happen to the land,” said Greg Balogh, the program’s coordinator.
But there is a history of mistrust between Alaskan native villagers and the federal government. People in Point Hope remember Project Chariot, an aborted federal plan in the 1960s to create a new harbor by detonating six nuclear bombs nearby.
“A lot of this stuff is trust-building,” Martin Robards, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Arctic Beringia Program, said of current efforts.
Aggie Henry, a housing security official in Point Hope, smiled when asked about possible federal assistance. “The federal government is not here. The Coast Guard is miles and miles away,” she said, looking out onto the Chukchi Sea. “Our heritage and our culture and tradition is very important to us. We will have to adapt to it.”
She said she is worried about the bowhead whales, bearded seals and walruses stored in the dark holds of her community’s remaining ice cellars, each one about 13 feet square and 10 feet deep.
Fortunately, the flooding this year did not harm the whale tails saved from the spring hunt — five in all. So this fall, Point Hope residents will carry them to city hall, clean off the blubber they are wrapped in and cut them up. Whaling captains will be served first. Residents will bring buckets to take some home.
“It’s green and slimy and nice, with a good taste,” Oomittuk said. “It has a strong smell. You have to be born to it.
“To us, this is what we grew up with. When food was scarce, you had to ferment everything you had left,” he said. “It’s all about survival.”