SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Remote Alaska villages battle erosion from changing climate
Anchorage Daily News


February 23, 2008

In the Alaska village of Shaktoolik, berms of driftwood above the beach used to provide protection from the sea. But these days the storm waves travel farther, pounding into the village itself, and the "Yukon logs" are tossed around like battering rams.

Shaktoolik is the latest of a half-dozen remote Alaska villages battling drastic erosion from a changing climate. All of them face expensive options -- seawall? relocation? -- with meager resources of their own.

Now the state is taking steps to fill a leadership vacuum and start making decisions about what to do.

In meetings over the last few weeks, Gov. Sarah Palin's climate-change panel has laid out a plan for tackling problems caused by global warming -- and also for investigating ways to reduce Alaska's own emissions of greenhouse gases.

A first step will be recommendations about which village erosion projects should get priority. That's due to reach the panel by April 1, said Mike Black, deputy commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

Funding agencies want someone to build consensus about what to do first, Black said.

The federal government simply won't fund every idea that comes its way, he said.

The panel's efforts are built around a pair of buzzwords -- "adaptation" for defense and "mitigation" for offense.

The mitigation effort includes new committees formed to look at energy conservation and at working with industry to reduce emissions at North Slope oil fields.

Alaska has lagged behind some other states in targeting emissions, even though the effects of rising temperatures have been pronounced here. A legislative committee on climate change stuck to questions of adaptation, saying it wanted to avoid arguments about causes. And the state remains an "observer" with the Western Climate Initiative, in which other states have united to take action to reduce gases.

But with Congress now considering legislation that would cap carbon emissions and allow companies to buy and sell pollution credits, Alaska may have a role to play that would benefit the state's economy as well as the atmosphere, Black said. For example, carbon credits would add economic value to Alaska's supplies of relatively clean natural gas, he said.

There's another reason to watch the cap-and-trade legislation, speakers said recently at the Alaska Forum on the Environment, in Anchorage. Money from the initial auctioning of carbon credits to industry may be made available to deal with impacts in Alaska or relocation of tribes, they said.

Funding to carry on the state's work and to help with community planning is included in a $1.1 million appropriation now before the Legislature.

That's a mere drop in the ocean compared to the money that may eventually be needed -- $355 million to move the three most endangered communities, according to a 2006 Army Corps of Engineers study. Federal officials say no such money is available yet. State contributions are going to be necessary to entice federal funds, they say.

Foremost on everyone's mind is what to do about places like Shaktoolik, a village of 230 on the coast of Norton Sound. Shaktoolik was once located safely up a river, but was moved to the coast by the federal government to build a school in the 1930s, village leaders said at the forum. The village was moved again in 1975 to higher ground after a disastrous flood.

Now the new site of Shaktoolik turns into a small island during floods and storms. Logs that have floated in from the Yukon River mouth are pounding down a wire fence around the school.

Erosion problems there, and in other coastal villages such as Kivalina, Shishmaref and Unalakleet, have developed because sea ice isn't freezing until later in the year, leaving the beaches exposed to the pounding of fall storms, government and local officials say.

Koyukuk, inland on the Yukon River, is another village on the severe-erosion list, though its problems appear to be more related to traditional floodplain erosion than to climate change, Black said.

Newtok, on the Bering Sea coast, has the dubious distinction of leading the list. Tidal surges are eating away at permafrost under the tundra, with loss of buildings imminent.

High ground for a new village has been chosen, and $1 million in federal and state funds are in hand for building a barge landing at the new site this summer. Plans are nearly complete for a large emergency evacuation center, which would be turned into a community center in the new village. But no funding is available yet to build the center, estimated to cost more than $17 million.


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Ketchikan, Alaska