As coastal erosion pulls rural Alaska communities into the sea, new research seeks solutions

Coastal erosion reveals the extent of ice-rich permafrost underlying active layer in the Teshekpuk Lake special area of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve . (Photo by Brandt Meixell/USGS)

For years, coastal Alaska communities, a majority of them Alaska Native villages, have contended with erosion, eating away at the land and pulling more and more of the coast into the sea. It’s led to a growing field of research into what can be done to address the problem.

A new article from nonprofit environmental news outlet Grist takes a look at what’s at stake in these communities and what residents are doing to combat the loss of land. Author Saima Sidik discussed her story with Alaska Public Media.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Wesley Early: So can you set the scene for us in these communities? What are community members in Dillingham and other coastal communities having to contend with due to erosion?

Saima Sidik: Yeah, it’s really striking. If you walk down the beach in a lot of these places, you can just see the earth crumbling away. Huge bluffs are just not where you left them the day before. Rocks and trees fall over the edge. Landmarks are disappearing in some cases. These points that people used to use to navigate are just not there anymore to guide them. So definitely a big problem threatening a lot of infrastructure, a lot of people’s livelihoods and just overall causing a lot of havoc and hardship.

WE: Your story lays out a lot of local proposals to mitigate the impact of erosion. One of them has to do with reinforcing melting permafrost with something called thermosiphons. Can you explain what those are and how they address erosion?

SS: Yeah, this is really interesting. So, this is something that Tom Ravens at the University of Alaska Anchorage is looking into. So thermosiphons are these large tubes that stick partly into the ground and partly out of the ground. And in them, there is a substance that alternates between being a gas and being a liquid. So when the substance gets cold, it condenses and it falls to the bottom of the tube, which is in the ground. And if the ground is warm, then that substance then heats up and turns back into a gas and goes up to the top of the tube where it’s colder. And in doing that, it delivers heat out of the ground and into the air. And so it sort of keeps the ground frozen. These have been used in some inland sites and there are some people who are suggesting that maybe they could be more widely used and maybe they could be part of a solution for erosion along coastlines.

WE: I know that scientists made another observation that has to do with this correlation between where subsistence hunters process marine mammals and the rate of erosion. Can you talk about that a little bit?

SS: Yeah, for sure. So subsistence hunters have noticed that places on beaches where they process marine mammals after they catch them, those places tend to be resistant to erosion. And some scientists are wondering if there are oils that leak out of the mammals that might be responsible for that. And they’re wondering if similar compounds could be found in other oils, like maybe even waste cooking oil. So this could be a way to possibly, you know, repurpose your French fry oil. After you eat your fast food, you could isolate these compounds from the leftover oil. And maybe that could be a way to stabilize the beaches.

WE: In response to erosion, several Alaska villages in recent years have already begun the process of relocating their communities. Can you talk a little bit about discussions researchers are having around portable housing?

SS: Well, my understanding — and I must say I’m not in Alaska, I’m not a Native person myself — but my understanding is that back in the history of a lot of these groups, they used to move from one place to another, depending on the season to keep themselves synced up with where natural resources were available. And some researchers are wondering, is it worth considering a move back to that sort of mobile lifestyle. And so there’s another researcher I talked to who is currently applying for funding to have conversations with Indigenous communities and ask them if they think living in structures that are meant to be moved when conditions necessitate that, if that could be a viable strategy.

WE: In addition to coastal villages losing physical land, you mentioned there is a historical component to what’s being lost in primarily Alaska Native communities. What did locals tell you about what’s at stake if the erosion continues to eat away at the coast?

SS: Well, you know, it just really changes their, the way of life that they’ve had for a long time. These are people who have a really long and deep relationship with the coastline and for whom the resources that they get from the ocean are deeply important. And so having to change their whole lifestyle and their whole communities, having to rearrange their whole communities in response to this problem, it’s not as simple as it might be in some parts of the world. You know, if you buy all your food at the grocery store, then it might not be such a problem to just start going to another grocery store, but it’s not that simple when you’re used to relying on the land a bit more.

Wesley Early covers municipal politics and Anchorage life for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

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