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'Venice of Northwest Alaska' sinking because of climate change

Alex DeMarban
Peter Law photo

The permafrost has sunk so much in one Northwest Alaska village that bridges are shifting, outdoor stairways hang over the ground and sagging water pipes are prone to break and freeze.

Those are a few of the ways climate change is affecting life in the Inupiat village of Selawik, according to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's Center for Climate and Health.

"You essentially have the Venice of Northwest Alaska, where the whole community is gradually sinking and people are struggling with how they'll possibly fix all this," said Michael Brubaker, with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Brubaker runs the center, which is studying the effects of climate change on facilities and people in Northwest Alaska. The consortium plans to turn its attention next to Bristol Bay villages in Southwest Alaska.

The effects of a changing climate are widespread in Selawik, some 70 miles southeast of Kotzebue. The village has 180 homes and it seems each has suffered one problem or another related to unstable tundra, said Carrie Skin, the city bookkeeper.

Windows are cracking. Doors are jamming. Ceilings are breaking loose from joists. 

Stand a distance from her house and you'll notice it's not level. One side "lops toward the Selawik River," which is five feet away and coming closer as it erodes, she said.

Skin signed up with the tribal housing department to have her house leveled, but that won't happen any time soon. The list for leveling work is long and tribal funds are limited.

"You have to be very lucky to be the chosen one," she said.

At her mother's house elsewhere in the village, the earth has shrunk away. Steps to the front door had to be extended in order to reach the ground, Skin said.

Selawik isn't alone in its efforts to grapple with climate change. In numerous trips to five Northwest Alaska communities over the last year and a half, Brubaker reports finding warmer temperatures are changing life in the Arctic, and often not for the better.  

Snowmachiners are increasingly at risk of plunging through ice. Chunks of shoreline are crashing away. Electric poles are leaning. Boardwalks are breaking. And water plants are struggling with algae blooms and increased sediment from erosion, raising questions about how villages will pay for such problems.

The reports released by the consortium are unique because of Alaska's position on the leading edge of climate change, and the impacts to the state's most remote communities are rarely studied.

"Everywhere we go, we're identifying big impacts to infrastructure, quite often in places that haven't been talked about before," Brubaker said.

So far, the consortium has published extensive findings on four villages. Some brief highlights from each include:

  • In Point Hope, underground ice cellars carved out of the permafrost are melting and filling with water. Meat has spoiled as a result, leading to more stomach infections from botulism, salmonella, and E. coli.
  • In Kivalina, erosion at a leach field in 2004 contributed to frozen water pipes at the washateria, the town water source. Nearly the entire village lacks running water, so residents were forced to melt ice to take sponge baths and wash hands through the winter. Health aides reported more respiratory and skin diseases during the shut-down.  
  • In Noatak, dwindling water in the river has for years prevented barge deliveries. Freight must be flown in, boosting the price of groceries and other products, including fuel, which cost around $9 a gallon this spring.
  • In Kiana, the riverbanks are rapidly eroding. Four feet vanished last year. "At the current rate, houses and infrastructure located on the bluffs will be vulnerable to damage and landslide over the next decade," that community report notes. 

The project to document climate change in Northwest Alaska won't include all 11 communities in the region, Brubaker said. The effort was initially funded with a $250,000 grant from the Indian Health Service, and those funds have dwindled.

But statewide interest in the project is growing. The Bristol Bay Native Association, using a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has hired the center to study three villages.

Brubaker plans to rely on past studies by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers other groups to determine which villages he'll study in Bristol Bay -- the region has more than 20 -- and to conclude which communities are most vulnerable to climate change.  

The center also recently won a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to train one villager in each of some 70 communities to serve as local climate-change observers starting next year.

The report on Selawik, population 820, will be published in early 2012.

It will discuss problems including:

  • Selawik's above-ground pipes are shifting as the ground freezes and thaws, creating breaks in the lines and forcing the utility to spend more money to keep the pipes warm. 
  • Supports for two bridges are shifting and much of the ground underneath has eroded away. The bridges are either "sinking or jacking up out of the ground," Brubaker can't tell which.
  • Thinning ice has made snowmachine travel increasingly risky.  

Over the last dozen years, at least five snowmachiners have died near the village after breaking through ice, according to reports. Two died on separate snowmachines during a single incident in 1999. Three others died during an incident in 2005 when a sled and snowmachine broke through ice.

Lake shorelines around the village are also severely eroding, especially at nearby Inland Lake, Skin said. 

"It's massive, huge chunks of the ground falling away," she said.

As for the river near Skin's house, the tribe hopes to win grants for an erosion-control project. Perhaps sandbags will stop it, said Tanya Ballot, tribal administrator.

Skin isn't hopeful. The river has moved about 10 feet toward her house in the last three decades, she said. Other erosion-control efforts, including old fuel drums along the banks, haven't helped.

"My house is being jeopardized," she said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com