Alaska Storm Bears Down on Village That Spearheaded Climate Change Battle

As a superstorm of historic proportions slams Alaska’s West Coast, one of the low-lying villages at grave risk is Kivalina, the tiny community already so battered by climate change, it three years ago launched a lawsuit against two dozen oil and other fossil fuel companies seeking relocation costs.  That case was dismissed but a ruling on an effort to revive the suit was slated for later this month. For now, Kivalina’s focus is on weathering the storm. As wind and high water bears down on the coast, Christine Shearer, author of Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket Books, 2011), blogged for National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge on the town’s plight.

What is being described as an “epic storm” is currently slamming into western Alaska. The storm is reported to have hurricane-like winds and massive waves, creating the potential for coastal flooding, extensive beach erosion, and serious damage. The National Weather Service is calling it “one of the most severe Bering Sea storms on record.”

One look at a picture of Kivalina and it is not hard to see why those who have come to care about this community are watching and hoping. The village sits on the tip of a tiny barrier reef island of about 27 acres that is barely above sea level and completely surrounded by water: one side the Chukchi Sea, the other the Kivalina Lagoon.

Residents trace their ancestry to the area back thousands of years. The people originally used Kivalina as a seasonal hunting ground but were instructed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1905 to settle there and enroll their kids in school, in exchange for small-scale infrastructure and some other modern amenities.

Part of this new settlement depended on the formation of sea ice in early fall, hardening the island and buffering it against storms. Due to warming Arctic temperatures, sea ice has decreased in the spring and taken longer to re-form in the fall, meaning sea ice now forms as late as November or even December. This is leaving the shoreline exposed and vulnerable for longer periods of time.

Lack of ice means storms have the potential to grow stronger as well, as winds are traveling over the open sea for longer periods of time, building up more energy that is transferred to the water, creating larger waves when they hit the shore.

According to climate scientist Richard Rood: “The growth and severity of middle latitude storms like this one is strongly influenced by the warm water of the sea. As the sea surface gets warmer and the air gets warmer, there is more energy available for the storm to intensify because of the release of energy from the condensation of water.”

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A satellite image of the storm from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The National Weather Service has warned that the present storm will have a “severe impact” on Kivalina, the worst storm in the region since one that struck over forty years ago. Only then, Kivalina was protected by sea ice.

With climate change lowering the village’s once natural defenses against increasingly strong storms, several U.S. government reports have stated that the community needs to be relocated. A 2006 Army Corps of Engineers report stated that Kivalina would be lost to erosion in 10 to 15 years, while a 2009 GAO report stated that limited progress had been made in relocating Alaska Native villages threatened by flooding and erosion.

Kivalina raised eyebrows in 2008 when its residents filed a legal claim against ExxonMobil and 23 other fossil few companies for damaging their homeland and creating a false debate around climate change science. – Kivalina v ExxonMobil et al.

Their legal claim argues that Kivalina has an identifiable harm, traceable to greenhouse gas emissions, of which the defendant companies are amongst the world’s largest contributors, with a smaller subset like ExxonMobil having actively tried to downplay the severity of climate change and the need for regulations, including both mitigation and adaptation policies. The suit was dismissed in 2009 but appealed, with that ruling set for later this month.

While the lawsuit brought some attention to Kivalina and its people, the controversy around the claim has often overshadowed rather than shed light on the situation faced by the residents of Kivalina, who have increasingly found themselves in dangerous situations.

Recent storms have swallowed as much as seventy feet of land in the course of one storm, threatening homes and lives. A sea barrier was constructed in 2006, only to be washed away by a large storm the day before its inauguration. Its dismantling left the village vulnerable to another large storm that hit in 2007, leading to a risky evacuation on all-terrain vehicles and boats. Residents who stayed behind used whatever materials were available to protect the fuel tanks and other infrastructure. In response, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a new sea wall in 2008.

Much hope is on that seawall right now, as Kivalina has stated that they do not yet plan to evacuate the village as they did in 2007. The revetment stands at 13 feet, higher than the six to eight feet that the sea is projected to surge due to the storm.

Yet, as Alaska Dispatch has noted, waters could still flood the village. Indeed, the Army Corps of Engineers has explicitly stated that the seawall is designed to help Kivalina deal with erosion, not flooding, which remains a danger. In response, city administrator Janet Mitchell said the city council is preparing the school as an evacuation center, as it sits 19 feet above sea level.

If there is any community that has proved itself resilient in the face of massive temperature extremes and weather conditions, it is the people of Kivalina and other Alaska Natives. Yet climate change is posing all new challenges, with the latest storm another stark reminder that the community still needs to be relocated.

For now, we wait and hope that this is another storm the people are able to brave.

Christine Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch.