April 25, 2017

America's Eroding Edges: Enabling Families to Adapt to Climate Change Independently

The edges of our country are eroding. From Alaska to Louisiana, centuries of culture, tangible history, and dynamic communities are being battered by stronger storms and sea level rise—raising difficult questions about adaptation, relocation, and what it means to be an American experiencing climate change today.

Over the next year, Victoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer will chronicle America’s Eroding Edges (AEE), helping you explore the challenges of all those facing the impacts of climate change on their homes, livelihoods, and cultures. Join us on this journey as we discover the breadth and depth of what stands to be lost in America—and what we as a nation can do about it.

The Arctic is warming at almost twice the global average rate, making the effects of climate change far more intense and rapid there than in any other ecosystem in the world. Extreme air and water temperature increases are exacerbating coastal erosion, forest fires, and storm surges that threaten the physical, economic, and cultural safety of settlements across the region. Further inland, thawing permafrost is compromising the stability of transportation, sanitation, and public service infrastructure.

Driftwood piles up on the edge of Shaktoolik’s gravel berm. | Credit: Victoria Herrmann and Eli Keene

In Alaska, climate change–induced flooding and shoreline erosion already affect more than 180 villages, and 31 of them face an imminent threat of becoming uninhabitable. Two of the villages included in the America’s Eroding Edges project—Shaktoolik and Unalakleet—are among the most impacted communities in the state.

As they stand today, federal relief programs focus on rebuilding in place after sudden natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy—not on supporting the relocation of towns facing slow-onset disasters like gradual inundation. While the federal government has taken some steps to provide adaptation-specific support, they currently fall short of any real impact. In September 2015, during the first presidential visit to the Arctic, President Obama pledged $2 million to help with voluntary climate-induced relocation efforts in Alaska. Unfortunately, that amount covers less than 2 percent of the cost of relocating just one town, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (CoE) estimates to be between $80 and $250 million.

As a result, most coastal communities must rely on ad hoc federal and state grants, attempting to rebuild and relocate in bits and pieces before an emergency evacuation becomes necessary. In the absence of adequate funding for relocation, communities have taken climate change adaptation into their own hands.

A Community Response to Imminent Threat

Among the more than 200 community-based interviews I have conducted from American Samoa to Alaska, the village of Shaktoolik stands out. The view from town—across the tundra, toward the distant foothills—is striking. In summer the landscape is dotted with generous berry bushes ripe for collecting and an expansive river system full of salmon. The main street of the village is lined with brightly painted houses, anchored by a state-of-the-art school building and a bustling community center complete with slushy machine and pool table. And the roughly 250 people that call the village home are warm and welcoming—you can’t walk for five minutes without someone stopping you to say hello. Shaktoolik stands out because it is a strong community—a critical feature of success in local climate change planning.

Shaktoolik is located on a barrier spit between the Norton Sound and Shaktoolik River in Western Alaska. Originally a reindeer-herding community located six miles upriver, the village moved to the mouth of the river in 1933 for easier barge access and moved again in 1967 due to severe erosion and storm winds. “So, in 100 years we’ve moved twice already,” Gary Bekoalok, a lifelong resident of Shaktoolik, explained to us over coffee at his fishing camp up the river. He had taken us upstream by boat to see the full extent of the village’s exposure to flooding. In spite of these moves, he explained, the village has an immense connection to the land. When we asked whether the community would relocate to a larger settlement like Nome or Kotzebue after an emergency evacuation, Gary shook his head. “I don’t think so. I think people are too attached to the land. Even if we move off the [current] site, we’re still at the land.” Part of that connection to the land lies in just how far back the village’s history stretches, he told us. “The people have a lot of ties with the land historically. I know Shaktoolik is … the second old[est] occupied village in Alaska. When I say the people have a long history with the land, that’s what I mean. So even if we move down to the foothills, we’ll be on the land of our ancestors—our historical ties are still there.”

Shaktoolik’s mayor, Eugene Asicksik, and his wife, Rhoda, on their four-wheeler. | Credit: Victoria Herrmann and Eli Keene

Today the CoE again identifies Shaktoolik as a site of extreme eroding and with immediate need of relocation; it is one of only four villages in the entire state of Alaska to receive that label.

While the land may not be strong, the community is. In every interview I conducted in Shaktoolik, residents—whether leaders, elders, hunters, or school teachers—identified the same values and goals in their fight against climate change: protection in place now, establishment of an evacuation road, and a path toward eventual relocation to the foothills. The cost estimates of relocating Shaktoolik into the foothills exceed $290 million. Lacking government support from either the state or national level, residents have taken the community’s safety into their own hands.

After years of bureaucratic inaction, the mayor of Shaktoolik, Eugene Asicksik, and other community members built a coastal berm to protect the community. The berm, funded with money raised locally by the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation, uses a four-foot pile of driftwood covered with gravel to protect houses from the Norton Sound’s storm surges. The widespread support for the berm is evident not only from interview answers but also from residents’ commitment to build and upkeep the barrier. When we visited the village in August, machines were humming along the beach, reinforcing the barrier with gravel. This upkeep, which is entirely locally sourced, locally funded, and reliant on local labor, represents universal, across-the-board support that is made possible by broad social cohesion—itself an effective tool in protecting communities from the effects of climate change.

Relocation Road: Simple Infrastructure for Resilience

About a 20-minute flight southeast of Shaktoolik lies the village of Unalakleet, a largely Native community with a population of fewer than 700. The village is bordered by the Norton Sound and the Unalakleet River. With trees, tundra, and hills behind it, Unalakleet is known across the region for its rich salmon and king crab harvests. Like Shaktoolik, Unalakleet faces extreme erosion and flooding from more intense storms and an absence of ice to buffer surges. To alleviate the erosion trend, the town has armored its shoreline with rocks and a gabion wall—a wire box filled with smaller rocks—over the past several years. While that sea wall has reduced inundation, another adaptation initiative is doing much more than mitigating flooding hazards in the short term—it’s building community resilience by providing a tool for residents to relocate from the bottom up.

In Alaska roads are difficult to come by. There is no state road system, and the vast majority of rural communities rely on propeller planes or snowmobiles for transportation between villages. While Unalakleet is not connected to any other settlement, a 15-mile road —originally built by the U.S. Air Force for access to an early-warning radar station during the Cold War—does lead to the hills behind town. Decades after being decommissioned in 1973, that road is now providing a unique strategy for adapting to shoreline erosion and sea level rise.

Shaktoolik as seen from the river. | Credit: Victoria Herrmann and Eli Keene

In 2009 Unalakleet sold land in the foothills, freeing uphill areas along the road for the construction of new homes and subdivisions at a higher elevation. Thanks to the road, families are able to relocate further inland on their own timelines, without having to wait for a federally funded wholesale move. The road has also enabled the town to develop new infrastructure uphill, including a new tank farm for fuel, a dump, and a gravel pit. New houses on the hillside have their own wells and septic tanks but still have access to the electricity grid, about 25 percent of which is powered by a wind farm. The wind farm was a community-driven infrastructure project that began with a 2008 application to the state of Alaska’s Renewable Energy Fund for $4 million. The farm has now grown to six turbines and has saved the village tens of thousands of dollars since the first turbine was installed.

The self-relocation is not without its drawbacks. Hillside residents still need to commute one to four miles into town for school, work, and other basic services that are located in a less vulnerable part of the shoreline site and, therefore, are unlikely to be relocated inland in the near future. Four miles is an expensive drive when gas can cost up to $7 per gallon. And some community members, accustomed to open areas and coastal landscapes, feel uneasy surrounded by the trees uphill. Still, the road allows the town to organically grow and adapt to a rapidly changing environment without waiting for external funding. This may become especially important in the event of flooding or a particularly intense storm, when newly constructed uphill homes can serve as temporary shelters for those who live along the coastline below. Unalakleet is now one of the more resilient communities labeled in imminent danger in Alaska. Threats to the low-laying portions of the community, which include erosion and storm surges, will pose an ongoing concern, but armoring the shoreline while simultaneously encouraging development to organically move uphill offers much-needed flexibility when adapting to the physical effects of climate change.

Rather than planning for large-scale projects that require significant federal funding, Shaktoolik and Unalakleet are now empowering their residents to act on the local level. Strong, socially cohesive communities not only shape and support sustainable neighborhoods but they also empower local leaders to effectively adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

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Victoria Herrmann bio photo square

Victoria Herrmann is the lead researcher for America's Eroding Edges, which she works on with the help of research associate Eli Keene, as well as president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, where she leads the Institute's research on climate change and community adaptation in Arctic communities.

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