Weekend storms pummel Arctic coastal villages

Shishmaref coastal erosion after a storm in November 2020. (Dennis Davis )

Over the weekend, much of the state saw snowfall, icy roads and the first wintery conditions. Photos from Shishmaref, a small village along the Chukchi Sea coast, show a large swath of road that leads from the community to the sewage lagoon has been completely washed away by waves. A number of other villages were also battered by high seas and gusting winds. 

Meteorologist Jonathan Chriest said the National Weather Service office in Fairbanks had received a number of reports from communities along Alaska’s west coast. He said villages from the Yukon River Delta north to Kivalina reported severe weather, including high seas. 

“Sections of the road between Nome and Council were washed out,” said Chriets. “Golovin reported some erosion. At Unalakleet, water was estimated at about eight feet above the normal high tide line, it approached the Alaska Commercial store there, but it did not flood and we heard that the community was prepared and there were no major impacts and the same was true at Shaktoolik,” he said.

“One of our residents locally has said that the storm on Friday was so powerful that an estimated 20-40 feet of infrastructure was lost,” said Twyla Thurmond. She’s the local coordinator for the Native village of Shishmaref. She works on community expansion and protection efforts. “Another local resident had commented that it was the worst that they had seen in the past 20 years,” said Thurmond.  

The infrastructure she mentioned is actually a road that connects Shishmaref with it’s dump and sewage lagoon and the state estimates that the loss more likely totals a quarter to half a mile.

Thurmond said winter weather means residents may be able to find a temporary work-around, by breaking a trail with snow machines and ATVs, but she said that’s not a permanent fix.

“Without having access to the dump, the community would be overloaded with garbage and human waste, so it creates a really big sanitation hazard overall,” said Thurmond.

Residents in Shishmaref voted to relocate due to severe coastal erosion back in 2016. On Monday, Shishmaref’s Mayor was working on a disaster declaration with the hope of freeing up emergency funds from the state for assistance. A spokesman with the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said it’s unlikely the road will be rebuilt this winter, so they are exploring alternate means of transportation for residents.

Further north, winds gusted up to 50 miles an hour at times, battering the tiny village of Kivalina. The community sits on a barrier island along the Chukchi sea coast. With no shorefast sea ice yet formed to protect the coastline this fall, every storm that pummels Kivalina’s west-facing beach could be the island’s last. Climate-change driven sea level rise and coastal erosion may eventually wash this island away, entirely. 

“Well, I’ve been documenting because it was pretty – the storm surge was pretty bad and the water was very high,” said Janet Mitchell. She grew up in Kivalina.

She spent much of the weekend driving around the island on her four-wheeler documenting the storm. Her short video clips show fierce and giant waves slamming against a rock revetment built a decade ago by the US Army Corps of Engineers to protect the island. Kivalina is one of nearly three dozen communities deemed in imminent danger of complete destruction due to climate change according to a 2009 report from the government accountability office.

Mitchell also captured a video of her Aunt, Lucy Adams, an 87 year old elder in the village. The video shows Lucy, walking with a cane, in her handmade mukluks, out to the rock revetment. 

Mitchell said her Aunt looked concerned, so she decided to stay nearby. “I asked her if she was ok,” said Mitchell. “She said, ‘oh yeah I’m ok, I’m just walking.’” 

In the video, the elder woman stops when she gets to the pile of dark gray rocks and then she just stands there, looking out over the angry, roiling Chukchi sea.

“She’s like the stronghold of Kivalina,” said Janet Mitchell. “She’s very faithful and she prays a lot and it’s like you feel safe knowing she’s praying for Kivalina, for our safety.”

Nearly every day, Lucy Adams sends a prayer out to her village over the local VHF radio. Mitchell said her Aunt Lucy also said her radio prayers this weekend.

By Sunday, skies over Kivalina had cleared, but only briefly. Winter weather and high surf advisories are in effect for the region until Tuesday.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated Shishmaref is located on the Bering Sea. It is on the Chukchi Sea. The story also misidentified the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management as the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

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