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.

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Cold Case: The Town that Melted Away

(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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(Photos: Kevin Horan)

Kivalina’s precarious situation has been worsened by a changing climate. Historically, the Chukchi Sea had turned solid by early winter, with slush forming along the shore in the fall, creating a kind of bumper cushion that protected the island from autumn storms. Over the past half century, however, the average annual temperature here has risen more than three degrees Fahrenheit, to 23.5, with a wintertime increase of almost seven. Last year it rained in January for the first time in memory, and in summer 2007 the thermometer approached 80 degrees. As a result, sea ice forms later in the year, while storms occur earlier: a literal double whammy.

Kivalinans know they have to move. In the 1990s, even before global warming was widely recognized, they targeted a pair of potential relocation sites to the east and south, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found geological problems with both. Now the village is fast running out of time. “Before, leaving was optional,” Swan says. “Now it’s an emergency situation.”

After another storm forced an evacuation of the island in the fall of 2007, you might say that Kivalina reached the end of its rope. Which is why, on February 26, 2008, this community of 400 Native Americans filed suit in federal court against 24 oil, electricity, and coal companies, including ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, British Petroleum, Chevron, and Shell. Demanding up to $400 million in damages – the estimated cost of moving the village out of reach of the rising sea – the lawsuit accuses the companies of contributing to global warming and creating a public nuisance that has harmed property in the town.

It’s an audacious move – after all, even snowmobile-using Kivalinans bear some responsibility for climate change. But the lawsuit goes further, charging that some of the corporations “conspired to create a false scientific debate about global warming in order to deceive the public.”

At this point, global warming and its effects on the Arctic are well documented. Since temperature records began in the mid-19th century, the eight warmest years on Earth have all occurred since 1998; as a direct result, the area covered by Arctic sea ice is 39 percent below its long-term average. Glaciers are retreating and tree lines are advancing throughout the north, with corresponding damage to wildlife habitats. The polar bear has been declared a threatened species.

The repercussions aren’t limited to the Arctic or the natural world. As permafrost melts, roads buckle, foundations shift, and oil and gas pipelines rupture. The disappearance of bog-laced tundra affects birds that migrate all over the globe. Worst of all, sunlight that strikes a blue ocean or brown landscape (instead of white snow or ice) is absorbed rather than reflected, further heating the planet; melting permafrost releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The average temperature of global oceans has increased, causing water to expand and raising sea levels.

All of which qualifies Kivalina as the proverbial canary in a coal mine – a harbinger of circumstances that other places can expect in the not-so-distant future. While the town might be isolated, it isn’t alone: According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 184 Native communities in Alaska are now in danger of catastrophic flooding and erosion.

Next: “If it were unchecked, we would have lost our
own culture a long time ago.”

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(Photos: Kevin Horan)

Although the Inupiat have inhabited the Arctic coast for thousands of years, they’ve lived in Kivalina only since the 1800s. Nomadic hunters who moved with the seasons, they were ordered 100 years ago by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to stay in one place so their children could be educated. Until the 1960s, Colleen Swan lived with her parents and ten siblings in a sod igloo heated by seal oil and covered with hides, tundra, and driftwood.

Propane has since replaced seal oil, electricity has taken the place of kerosene, and snowmobiles have superseded dog teams. But even today, except for the McQueen School, the housing for teachers, and the clinic, Kivalina has no plumbing or sewage service. Drinking water is collected from the nearby rivers, and in lieu of toilets, people use five-gallon “honey buckets,” which get emptied with household garbage at the north end of town. The average household income is $30,600, about half the state’s average, and almost everyone receives checks from the Northwest Arctic Native Association and the Alaska Permanent Fund, which gets its income from oil revenues.

A lifelong resident of Kivalina, Enoch Adams, 48, has served at various times as a vice mayor, a city councilman, and a member of the relocation-planning committee. He now works for the Northwest Arctic Borough, in one of the two two-story buildings in town.

He lives next door to his 75-year-old mother, Lucy, who, as Deal or No Deal plays on TV, sits spread-legged on the kitchen floor stitching a pair of caribou mukluks. A pan of seal meat rests on the table. “You can get sucked into American culture easily,” Enoch says, watching people jump and shout on-screen while dollar signs flash before them. “If it were unchecked, we would have lost our own culture a long time ago. Instead we take technology and use it to hold on to our traditions. A snow machine makes hunting and gathering a lot easier.”

Lucy came to Kivalina – along with her parents and 6 of her 11 siblings – from Point Lay, 150 miles to the north, by dogsled and skin boat in 1943. “My dad supported us by hunting and trapping and selling furs,” Lucy says. “We liked it here. It was nice and quiet and so rich and pretty – the beach was wide and full of tall grasses, and there were lots of willows and flowers. We had vegetables when we ate meat. There were blackberries, blueberries, and cranberries where the airport is. But now it’s all just dust and gravel. It’s sad; last summer I went up the island and there were cracks from ice melting inside the ground.”

Lucy’s brother – Colleen Swan’s father, Joe, who lives 100 yards away – didn’t take climate change seriously until last year. “They said global warming was melting the permafrost, but we never had problems,” he says. “Here it was still frozen 10 or 12 feet down.” Joe always stored seal and caribou meat in the ground, but in 2007 the ice cellar filled up with water and the meat rotted. Now, he says, “I believe in global warming.”

Preserving meat is crucial for Kivalinans, who get 80 percent of their calories from what they hunt. According to Colleen, the four basic Inupiat food groups are seal, whale, fish, and caribou: “When you don’t have one for a while, you start craving it.”

Enoch Adams agrees: “Other foods start tasting bad. You’re starving and you don’t even realize it. But Mom knows; she’ll say, ‘I need fish! I’m tired of caribou!’ “

The hunting of different animals is closely tied to the phases of sea ice formation: Whales customarily appear in April, when channels begin to open, while ugruks (bearded seals) increase their numbers in late spring and early summer, as the ice breaks up.

In recent years, however, warmer weather has disrupted these patterns. “When I was growing up, ugruk season lasted the entire month of June,” says Adams. “But since 2004 there’s only a three-day window – the ice breaks up and then it’s gone.” Hunters used to establish whaling camps for several weeks, but now the ice seldom extends far enough to reach the mammals’ migration routes. “Even if you got a big whale,” says Joe Swan, “you wouldn’t be able to pull it up on the ice – it might crack anywhere and float away.”

Dogsleds have disappeared from Kivalina, but the dogs remain.

Next: The legal case against climate change.

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(Photos: Kevin Horan)

The global-warming lawsuit isn’t Kivalina’s first foray into litigation. Soon after the Red Dog Mine – the world’s largest zinc operation, located 50 miles to the east – began operating in 1989, dead fish started showing up in the Wulik River, Kivalina’s primary source of freshwater. Examining the company’s discharge reports, Colleen Swan found what appeared to be several permit violations. Enoch Adams and five other members of the Kivalina Relocation Planning Committee sued the mine’s owner, Teck Cominco Alaska, Inc., for violating the Clean Water Act. In 2006 a U.S. District Court ruled in Kivalina’s favor.

The fight against the power companies is far more quixotic. Judges have repeatedly ruled that global warming is a political issue for legislatures, not a matter for the courts, and many people agree. Nevertheless, Kivalina’s argument – which is similar to the one that finally forced the big tobacco companies to pay billions in damages, after decades of failed attempts – is attracting widespread attention in the legal community. Stephen Susman, who defended Philip Morris in the 1990s, is one of nearly 20 attorneys who have signed on to represent the town. As Yale environmental law professor Daniel Esty observes, “The growing clarity of the science and understanding of emissions are giving these cases a greater bite and potential than they’ve had in the past” – particularly because of the conspiracy charge.

Before similar charges were leveled against the tobacco companies, most people viewed smokers not as victims but as willing participants in an ill-advised pastime. As Heather Kendall-Miller, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, puts it, “The prevalent point of view was, How can you hold tobacco companies responsible? Nobody is forcing people to smoke. But not only were tobacco companies profiting from smoking, they were making people believe it wasn’t as bad as they thought.”

Following that precedent, the Kivalina suit documents energy companies’ support of trade associations such as the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition, which was founded by Philip Morris’s PR firm to downplay the hazards of secondhand smoke and later refocused to discredit science about climate change. ExxonMobil is accused of channeling $16 million over a seven-year period to 42 organizations that promote false information on global warming. One is the George C. Marshall Institute, a think tank cofounded by the late Frederick Seitz, the former president of the National Academy of Sciences who also worked as a research adviser for R.J. Reynolds. (The academy later dissociated itself from his findings.)

Alan Jeffers, an ExxonMobil spokesman, responds that the company has never asked any such organization to take a position and has discontinued funding to some of them. While he won’t comment directly on the Kivalina case, he insists that ExxonMobil views climate change very seriously. “We’re taking action to reduce emissions in our operations and to help consumers reduce theirs through various technologies,” Jeffers says, “whether it’s making hydro-carbon use more efficient or exploring how to make next-generation alternatives like solar and biofuels more affordable.”

Next: In the event of an unprecedented flood, boats and
planes would be of little help.

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(Photos: Kevin Horan)

Not everyone sees Kivalina as a Native American David confronting a  corporate Goliath. “As soon as I heard about that lawsuit on the news, I knew it must be Kivalina,” remarks an occasional maintenance worker in the village. “They’re just looking for somebody to pay to move their town for them. They have a legitimate case about global warming, but they’re totally dependent on fossil fuel. They even drive to the store because they don’t want to walk.”

Even Kivalina’s mayor, Bert Adams, believes that filing lawsuits isn’t going to relocate the town. “I think you’ve got to solve your own problems,” he says. “I don’t like the blame game.” In contrast to Kivalina’s approach, the similarly endangered community of Newtok, 470 miles south, recently began moving itself. Although red tape and lack of funds have reportedly delayed that effort, it hasn’t kept Kivalina from being viewed unfavorably by comparison. When Colleen Swan visited the capital, she heard that some state legislators consider Kivalina “a handful of disenfranchised militants.”

Swan doesn’t take comments like that very well. “My grandfather was a priest who told me to turn the other cheek and walk away from people if they give you trouble,” she says. “But there are some things you just can’t walk away from.”

Or swim or fly either. In the event of an unprecedented flood, boats and planes would be of little help in evacuating Kivalina. This summer the Army Corps of Engineers began work on a rock-reinforcement project to provide interim protection, but only a fifth of the necessary length was expected to be completed by fall. Meanwhile, the Corps is bringing in another 5,000 cubic yards of sand. “They’re just fumbling in the dark,” says Kendall-Miller.

As fall approached, Colleen Swan organized a teleconference between several state and federal agencies to plan for the storm season. The town continues to brace itself, awaiting not only unpredictable weather but a court ruling on whether distant corporations could someday be called to account for its fate.

“Is global warming at its peak, or is it going to get worse? No one knows the answers,” Swan says. “We’re talking about moving our village in a state that’s 65 percent wetlands. You have to wonder if any place is safe.”

An Inupiat hunter prepares to go whaling with a harpoon. Less ice means harder hunting.


Update: As of July 13, 2012, Kivalina’s case is still pending in US courts.

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