Kivalina emergency access road now open for use

The new Kivalina Access Road stretches over an icy river in Alaska's Northwest Arctic.
Kivalina Evacuation and School Site Access Road. (Jonathan Hutchinson/Alaska Dept. of Transportation)

After two years of construction, the Kivalina Access Road is now usable for the community. It’s the first step in a process to potentially relocate the entire Northwest Alaska village from the threat of an eroding coast and rising sea levels.

Kivalina sits on a barrier island, surrounded by the Chukchi Sea. The area is prone to heavy wind and rainstorms. The protection of sea ice has become less reliable and sea levels have risen with climate change. That has let the ocean chew into the shore.

“It was always eroding,” said Tribal Administrator Millie Hawley. “We’re on a small spit of land that has diminished in size over the last century.”

Storms also bring the risk of flooding. Hawley said it had been difficult to evacuate people from the village during emergencies.

“According to the U.S. Coast Guard, it takes at least a day or two to come assist us. In a state of emergency, that’s just not acceptable.”

The solution was to build an eight-mile gravel road from the northern part of the community near the airport over the Kivalina Lagoon, allowing evacuees to head to a higher-ground area known as K-Hill. 

After three years of planning and two years of construction, the lion’s share of the road was completed at the end of October.

“The project is substantially complete,” said Jonathan Hutchinson, the project manager with the state Department of Transportation. “There’s a need to install dust pallets next summer, and without getting into details, minor concrete finish work on the bridge.”

Hutchinson said the road is usable now, though that has brought up a new concern. 

“One of the safety concerns that I’ve heard from the community has been lighting the route,” Hutchinson said. “Because you’re crossing the lagoon, everything’s going to be dark. Typically late fall, it’s going to be pretty dark by then when you’re wanting to evacuate on that road.”

With the new road, the community is also looking to relocate its school. It’s part of a wider effort to move the entire village and its more than 400 residents. A similar move was made by residents of the Western Alaska village of Newtok. Residents of Shishmaref near the Bering Sea have discussed a move as well. Some scientists estimate the entire community could be underwater by 2025.

Hutchinson said there is already a new school site in mind.

“At the very end of the road, we’re putting a staging pad that’s intended to support future development in that area for the construction of the school.”

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Hawley, the tribal administrator, said final inspections on the road are set to happen in early summer. For now, she says locals are getting use out of the new road.

“It’s been used every single day for subsistence. We’ve got access to our fishing sites: Even if the lagoon didn’t freeze over, we’re able to go there.”

As for the school, construction is expected to break ground late next fall.

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Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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