While a storm battered the Bering Sea coast over the weekend, communities farther north along the Chukchi Sea were mostly spared from serious damage. In the village of Kivalina, about 80 miles up the coast from Kotzebue, one house did come close to getting washed into the sea.
A group of neighbors worked through the storm to protect it, but in a village that is constantly dealing with the impacts of climate change driven erosion, they say it’s likely just a temporary solution.
Kivalina is a village of more than 400 people, located at the tip of a thin, 8-mile long barrier reef. On one side is a lagoon about a half-mile wide separating it from the mainland. On the other side is the Chukchi Sea.
Surrounded by water, Kivalina has long dealt with climate change-driven erosion and storms grinding away at the town. The storm last weekend was one of the worst in recent memory.
“The water started rushing in. I mean, like, rushing in,” said Janet Mitchell, a former village administrator who has documented climate change in Kivalina for decades. “I’m 62 years old. I have never seen a storm this bad.”
While areas farther south like Nome, Golovin and Hooper Bay felt the worst of the flooding and destruction, Mitchell says Kivalina only had minor flooding. The storm had weakened by the time it passed the Seward Peninsula and a rock retaining wall completed in 2010 helped protect the ocean-facing side of the village.
But for homes on the reef closer to the shoreline, further erosion is the bigger concern. On Saturday, one house belonging to an elder who lives in Anchorage looked ready to fall into the lagoon.
“The rush was so bad that it started eroding that area. But our guys were already working on it before he got pretty bad. They started in the early day and they kept at it until they were done. Which was about 11 at night? Midnight?” Mitchell said.
Replogle Swan is field officer for the town’s group of volunteer first responders. Swan said some neighbors saw the waves coming within feet of the house and notified his team.
“Everybody watches when the storm comes,” he said. “The whole town pretty much watches the storm and all the surroundings.”
Replogle, his brother Joseph Swan Jr. and their cousin Carl Swan headed out to the gravel airstrip where boulders leftover from building the village’s rock wall are stored. The Swans used an excavator to place rocks into a loader, which they hauled back to the house.
Then, Carl said, they plunked them down, one by one, in front of the house.
“We set them in front of the bank to help support the bank. It kind of also redirects the flow away from the bank,” Carl said.
The Swans worked in the rain and heavy wind until there was enough of a blockade to protect the house.
Joseph said the rock barrier will protect the house for now, but eventually, he guesses, it’ll have to be moved inland as the lagoon continues to eat into the bank.
“We can’t stop that erosion, but seems like we added another year,” he said with a grim laugh.
A resident of the house declined to be interviewed for this story.
In recent decades, Kivalina has watched climate change usher in heavier storms and melt protective sea ice. Permafrost thaw has sped up the erosion process, too.
Mitchell, the former village administrator, said she’s thinking about the safety of the town.
“It’s always on my mind. We know [the storms] are going to get worse because the climate has been changing for quite a spell. We live here. We know how it was in the beginning,” she said. “And we’ve had to change with the changing climate, we had to figure out new ways of doing things, we had to learn new ways of safety.”
Eventually, the village may have to relocate across the lagoon. An evacuation road connecting the reef to the mainland was completed in 2020 and a new school on the mainland is scheduled to open soon. Mitchell and others have long pushed for federal funding for the relocation project. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated in 2006 it would cost up to $250 million.
And while it’s a pressing need, she said the community is still somewhat divided about moving.
Joseph Swan said he’d miss living by the ocean, where he can keep an eye on the animals he hunts — seals, walrus, whales. He jokes he’ll stay on the island until he’s kicked off.
“I keep hearing about it, but I’m not too excited about it. I’m from the coast. I got salt on me,” he said.
Even Mitchell recalls two years she tried to live inland in Noatak.
“I was miserable,” she said, calling herself an “ocean girl.”
With winter freeze-up on the way, the house threatened by this weekend’s storm is safe, for now. Mitchell says a permanent fix — relocating — is dependent on when they can get the funding to do it.