Cold Case: The Town that Melted Away

Above the Arctic Circle, global warming is washing a village into the sea. The incredible story of a tiny town's struggle for survival.

By David Darlington (Reader's Digest US, December 2008)

(Photos: Kevin Horan)

The village of Kivalina has never been very secure. A ramshackle settlement of 100 buildings, it includes a school, a post office, a health clinic, a grocery store, a laundry, two churches, and a bingo parlor, all perched on a thin strip of permafrost between the Chukchi Sea and the mouths of the Wulik and Kivalina rivers. Just off the northwestern coast of Alaska, it's truly a town on the edge. For most of the year, Kivalina is surrounded by ice; when it melts during the brief summer, waves gnaw the shore from the west and rivers tug at it from the east.

Erosion, which has shrunk the island by nearly 20 acres over the past 50 years, is something former school principal Gerry Pickner has witnessed firsthand. As the first big fall storm approached in 2004, the ground behind his trailer collapsed. Where there had once been a broad beach between the town and the ocean, the earth behind the buildings now dropped directly into the water, and Pickner suddenly found his home teetering on a steep bank with seawater splashing against its windows. While teachers scrambled to move his belongings into the school, the ocean advanced on the town's fuel tanks and generators; meanwhile, at the island's north end, waves threatened a gravel airstrip, Kivalina's main connection to the outside world. In desperation, neighbors sawed apart a plane that had crash-landed several years earlier and used its sheet metal to build a shield between the water and the runway.

After the same hair-raising pattern of events occurred the following year, the state government's Northwest Arctic Borough set about building a protective seawall, a ten-foot-tall bulwark of fabric-lined baskets filled with sand and reinforced with wire. On the day of its scheduled completion — September 12, 2006 — a celebratory barbecue was planned. "The seawall is done!" trumpeted the flyer that announced the party. "We are safe!" The appointed day, however, brought a gray sky and a restless ocean. As swells began to surge against the wall, a powerful undertow pulled the sand out from underneath. Within a month, the $2.5 million barrier — a "sand castle," in Pickner's estimation — was dismantled by the sea.

"It's been an incredible three or four years," says Colleen Swan, the tribal administrator for Kivalina's Inupiat residents, Alaska Natives who make up 97 percent of the town's population. "You think you've addressed a problem, then something else happens that you didn't expect. No matter what our volunteers did, the ocean sucked it away as if it were coming after us."


In this tiny town of under 400 residents, puddles appear where snow used to be.

Next: How global warming is destroying Kivalina.

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