Climate change in alaska: waiting for the last storm

The Bering Sea is rising, threatening a small village in Alaska. Its residents face a decision: When to let go?

The old site of the village of Shaktoolik, abandoned since the 1974 storm Photo: Dorothea Hahn

The "Boyde J" stands so close to the back of Edgar Jackson’s house that you can almost climb in from the living room. A ladder leans against the metal hull. In October, the old fisherman pulled his crab boat ashore, fueled it, carried food and water supplies aboard, and put a wooden frame on the deck. When the big storm comes, which everyone in Shaktoolik fears, he plans to bring his family on board, throw a tarp over the wooden scaffolding and try to sail to safety.

"I can fit 30 to 40 people on my boat," says the 72-year-old, who was mayor of Shaktoolik for more than three decades. "It’s going to be cramped and cold. But at least we have a chance of survival." Like nearly all of the village’s 258 residents, Edgar Jackson is an Inupiat, a member of one of Alaska’s more than 20 indigenous peoples. Like everyone here, he calls himself an Eskimo, a term considered old-fashioned and offensive to some outside the village.

Shaktoolik, 700 kilometers from Anchorage and 6,000 kilometers from Washington, lies at the end of a narrow spit of land between the tundra and the Bering Sea. No road leads to Shaktoolik. The only connection to the outside world is the gravel runway where small propeller planes can land on days when visibility is clear. 60 single-story houses line the right and left sides of the runway. It leads 20 kilometers inland and ends there, the inhabitants use it when they hunt in the tundra. On the eastern side of the headland, the houses border the Tagoomenik River; on the western side, the bay opens up behind the houses, merging into the Bering Sea and the North Pacific Ocean. The seawater is gnawing away at Shaktoolik. It eats away at the coastline.

In the Inupiaq language, which only the local elders still understand, Shaktoolik means "isolated." But now climate change is dragging the village from the northwest edge of the Americas to the center of global action. Temperatures in the region are rising twice as fast as the average on Earth. The sea threatens to swallow the village. Shaktoolik is one of four places in Alaska that need to be relocated, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office.

"It’s way too warm in Shaktoolik," says Matilda Hardy. From her living room table, a poster of Jesus’ Last Supper behind her, Hardy looks out onto the dark sandy beach, seawater still sloshing over it. On this early November day, it’s only one degree below zero outside, ten degrees warmer than usual this time of year. It’s raining instead of snowing. Hardy used to see people walking across the frozen seawater at this time of year; she saw snowbanks growing between houses, sometimes as high as the roofs in winter.

The Inupiat of Shaktoolik are given the honorary title of "eldest" at 55. In addition, 60-year-old Matilda Hardy is the elected president of the Tribal Council. In this capacity, she ensures that tribal law is respected in Shaktoolik. If a child loses its parents or is abandoned by them, she looks for a new family so that it can stay in the village. And if someone dies outside, she organizes their repatriation so they can be buried in the small cemetery at the airport.

Shaktoolik, that is 60 one-story houses along the gravel road Photo: Dorothea Hahn

In the middle of the village stands the light blue painted house of the Jacksons. There, the headland was more than 100 meters wide in the last decade. Since then, the Bering Sea has moved 15 meters closer. During storms, seawater sloshes right up to their front door.

Wearing a short-sleeved pink T-shirt, 74-year-old Helen Jackson sits next to her husband on the sofa in their living room. In the center of the wood-paneled room is still the old cast-iron wood-burning stove with the pipe up, but the heat no longer comes from burning driftwood, but from a gas heater. The walls are decorated with stuffed animals and family photos. A poster of the Last Supper also hangs here, as in many of Shaktoolik’s good parlors. Basketball trophies from the children and grandchildren are stacked on a shelf. Helen Jackson has encouraged her three children to stay in place and continue the old lifestyle. Because Shaktoolik is safe. No house door is locked, nowhere are fences. Helen Jackson considers large cities unsafe because of "bombs, terrorists and robbers. And: Shaktoolik is home.

On the Bering Sea, the storms come in the fall and almost always at night. Unlike the hurricanes to the south, they have no names. But they are destructive and freezing. "In a big storm, 60 to 70 people will freeze to death here," says Edgar Jackson, "that’s different from Florida and Texas."

Edgar Jackson, the former mayor of Shaktoolik, in front of his storm-worthy crab boat Photo: Dorothea Hahn

The forces of nature have long been merciful to the residents of Shaktoolik. They could count on their wide bay being frozen over before the autumn storms came. So the waves could not crash directly onto the mainland. But now these certainties are fading. Summers are getting longer, winters milder. The autumn storms now come before the ice.

Even the bedrock has begun to move. In the past, permafrost held the subsurface together with ice all year. To keep the ground from warming, they put their houses on stilts in Shaktoolik. Now the permafrost is thawing. The ground is softening. It no longer bears weight as it used to.

For generations, the Inupiat of Shaktoolik have lived in symbiosis with the harsh natural environment. The tundra, the rivers and the sea are their "garden". They only go to the two stores, where chicken thighs and apple juice cost five times as much as in New York, in an emergency. Instead, villagers hunt caribou and moose, gather wild rhubarb, herbs and berries, or hunt beluga whales and seals. They then say, "We harvest."

Now they must find a solution to the global problem that threatens their garden. While everything around them is in flux, they don’t have the words to describe it. "Weather patterns are changing," they say in the village. It sounds harmless. They have learned how to deal with "weather." But what do you do about "climate change"? When is the right time to let go of home? Where does one go?

This text comes from the taz am wochenende. Always from Saturday on the kiosk, in the eKiosk or immediately in the practical weekend subscription. And around the clock on Facebook and Twitter.

But above all: Again?

On the night of November 9, 1974, a storm brought masses of water from the sea and destroyed the old Shaktoolik airport. Newlyweds Rhoda and Eugene Asicksik slept unsuspectingly through that stormy night. It wasn’t until the young man went outside for a cigarette the morning after that he noticed driftwood blocking his front door. "Everything was ice when I stepped outside," Asicksik says. The ice settled like a protective layer around the houses and on the ground, preventing them from being swept away by the sea.

One man refused to move away

The 1974 storm triggered a move that the village had been putting off for ten years: the relocation of Shaktoolik. At the time, the village was located five kilometers down the headland, at a point where the bay is already deep at the shore. Storms that brought torrents of water had long threatened the village. As early as 1964, the inhabitants of Shaktoolik had decided to move, but had stayed for ten years, until the big storm.

If you trace the decision of that time in the village, you will come across different versions. There was a choice between a site at the foot of the mountains and the current site of Shaktoolik. Those who tipped the scales back then are dead. Those who came after say that "the elders decided". They voted, it is learned, by a slim majority of two or three votes against the foot of the mountains. The elders wanted to stay at eye level with the sea. To be able to launch their boats into the water as soon as a whale came into sight.

Edgar Jackson

"In one storm, 60 people freeze to death here".

Even then, many in the village thought the decision was wrong. Among them was Eugene Asicksik, who had slept through the night of the storm. He thought the higher ground was safer. But he was young and deferring to the wisdom of his elders. The word "climate change" had not yet reached Shaktoolik. Only one old man refused to move away. He remained alone in old Shaktoolik, hunting, fishing and living there until he died.

The remains of the old wooden houses rise into the low-lying sky like monuments to a bygone era. Genevieve Rock, 54, spent her first ten years in one of them. As a little girl, she fetched water from the river. As she gathered ayu leaves for tea there last summer, she thought of her grandmother, from whom she gets her name. "She walked across this tundra, she gathered berries here," she says as she walks through the tall grass between two rusted boats. "When I’m here, I feel her presence." Rock lived in Anchorage for 17 years. But when her mother died last year and her brothers called her, she returned to Shaktoolik with her partner and their four grown children.

Only English was allowed

It was not the Inupiat who chose the site for Old Shaktoolik, but the government-owned Bureau of Indian Affairs, the federal agency that forced Native children into schools throughout the United States. In the 1930s, the bureau packed building materials into barges and placed a school in the wind-swept spot on the headland where unloading seemed easiest. Then the agency urged the Native Americans, who had until then lived as nomads, to settle around the school, "For the sake of the children."

Edgar Jackson, the old fisherman, went to that school then. When he spoke Inupiaq, the teachers put soap in his mouth. Only English was allowed. The distrust stuck with him. To spare his children the humiliation, he never taught them the "old language." At home, he speaks it only with his wife.

At the same time as the "old language" disappeared, so did the shamans, the Inupiat dances and the drums from Shaktoolik. Eugene Asicksik says today, "We didn’t do away with our traditions. The missionaries took them from us." He was sent as a young boy to a boarding school on the other side of Alaska, from which he did not return home until he was an adult. Asicksik never learned if it was his mother’s wish or if she did it because of pressure from teachers because she was a widow. But even as a 65-year-old, he lowers his voice when he talks about his time at boarding school.

With the move to the new village, Shaktoolik’s life sped up. Water now flows from the tap. The new houses are assembled from prefabricated elements, some painted raspberry red, some purple, some turquoise. The residents wear insulating clothing from Southeast Asia instead of silver fox skins. The stars of the young people of Shaktoolik are no longer the best hunters, but the basketball players of the school. And the school has a bilingual teacher who teaches Inupiaq.

The population of the small village, which seems so united from the outside, has many fault lines within it that are becoming deeper with climate change. The young, in particular, want to relocate as quickly as possible to higher ground at the foot of the mountains. "You’re putting money into a sinking ship," says Michael Rock. The son of late returnee Genevieve Rock spent his childhood in Anchorage, he’s now 34 and lives in Shaktoolik. During fishing season there, he can earn up to $8,000 a month on a commercial crabbing boat – more than any construction site in Anchorage. Michael Rock has a pragmatic approach to Shaktoolik.

Michael Rock, fisherman, behind him the much too thin November ice Photo: Dorothea Hahn

But the elders find it hard to give up their known world. Their proposals are a confusion. Often contradictory, unrealistic or vague. Edgar Jackson wants to build a paved and asphalted evacuation route to the mainland. There is no agreement on the route. Jackson also wants emergency lighting so boats can find the navigation channel in the river on storm night. But others in the village shake their heads. "It just makes them feel like they’re doing something," says Eugene Asicksik. Even for experienced mariners, going out on boats on a stormy night with high waves and a potentially frozen river is a challenge, he says. But for children and the elderly, he says, it’s dangerous above all. Not to mention, there is not enough room for everyone in the village on the five large boats in Shaktoolik, which are now parked very close to house fronts.

There is also dissent in the village about the school’s gymnasium – which the community has chosen as a shelter for a storm. Because the building could collapse under the force of the sea and bury those seeking refuge. Others think the construction of an emergency shelter at the foot of the mountains, where 251 people could find warmth, water and food in the days until rescue teams arrive, is an overblown project. And Matilda Hardy, president of the tribal council, predicts that the cost of relocation will be so high that it is guaranteed to end any discussion of it.

Michael Rock

"You’re putting money into a sinking ship"

But in the summer of 2014, Shaktoolik experienced a hair-raising moment. Eugene Asicksik had just become the village’s mayor. External engineers had suggested to him to protect the village on the seaward side with a dam – but there was no money for the implementation.

Asicksik didn’t flinch for long. Without a permit from Anchorage and money from Washington, he bought two discarded dump trucks from the U.S. Army, two shovel loaders and a tractor, had them brought to Shaktoolik by barge and hired eight local people. The workers drove gravel into the village in day and night shifts during the always bright Alaskan summer and piled a two-meter-high, 1.6-kilometer-long dike.

The dike has drawn dozens of curious visitors to Shaktoolik from other Alaskan towns affected by climate change. And it has raised hopes in the village that maybe something is possible. But everyone knows the levee can’t protect them from a storm of the century. "At best, we’re buying time," says Eugene Asicksik. Despite the dike that everyone in the village is proud of, he has not been re-elected as mayor. The Asicksik couple is now sitting on packed suitcases. He is bitter that his council is no longer wanted. She says the wait for disaster is scary. The Asicksiks plan to move in January. But Eugene Asicksik doesn’t see it as goodbye forever. He’s bounced between Shaktoolik and the rest of the U.S. many times.

Half a dozen agencies are responsible

Edgar Jackson and Matilda Hardy have traveled to Anchorage dozens of times to talk with Alaska and Washington politicians about assistance. Most recently, they were there in early December. "They’re trying to help us," Edgar Jackson says. But he also worries that help "won’t come until the disaster is already here." Matilda Hardy sums up her observations this way: "No money." Conversely, the authorities feel that the representatives from Shaktoolik are still struggling with themselves and have not made a decision.

In Anchorage and in Washington, the precarious situation of many Native people on Alaska’s coast has been known for years. As early as 2003, the U.S. General Accounting Office warned in a report to the U.S. Congress that the majority of the 200 coastal villages were threatened by erosion and flooding. In another 2009 report, it named Shaktoolik, along with Kivalina, Shishmaref and Newtok, as the four places that need to be relocated. Another 27 places on Alaska’s coast are also "threatened by climate change," he said. Climate scientists predict that most of these places will be uninhabitable by mid-century.

Joel Niemeyer

"We as a country have no strategy"

Yet not much has happened. All 31 villages remain in their dangerous location. Newtok, whose population has been discussing relocation for twenty years, has only this year laid the foundation stone for a new place. Above all, there is a lack of money. Each individual resettlement would cost hundreds of millions of dollars – because of the high construction costs for roads, houses and airports in the subarctic region. The authorities do not reject resettlement in principle, but they do not release the necessary funds either. To make matters worse for the indigenous people, from the moment they decide to relocate, they receive fewer subsidies to maintain their old infrastructure. But such a resettlement can take time. And in the meantime, gravel roads need to be maintained, airports repaired, and health clinics upgraded.

Resettlement due to climate change is a new issue for the USA. Theoretically, it affects more than half a dozen authorities – from the Ministry of Housing to the Environmental Protection Agency to the Ministry of Agriculture. They pass the responsibility back and forth between themselves, none feels responsible. In 2015, before the Paris Agreement was signed, it looked like that might change. Barack Obama traveled to Alaska and became the first U.S. president to speak publicly about relocation due to climate change. But it remained a symbolic appearance. Obama’s proposal to fund the relocations with levies from offshore drilling didn’t even make it to Congress. Even less support can be expected from his successor. Donald Trump has erased the word "climate change" from government documents. Officials in Washington who have dealt with the issue have been punitively transferred or fired under him.

This and many other articles were made possible by financial support from the Foreign Research Fund.

In Alaska, things are different. After all, no one there doubts that climate change is real. But the state lives in the rhythm of oil prices. Since they crashed, it has little money for new public projects. In addition, the location of villages along the coast is just one of many consequences of climate change in the state. Other impacts include ocean acidification that threatens fish populations, pest infestations, and fires ravaging forests and roads collapsing because of melting permafrost.

A small federal agency based in Anchorage, the Denali Commission, advises affected villages. But in a state twice the size of Texas, the 15 employees’ options are limited. "We could help if we as a country had a long-term strategy on climate policy," says the commission’s Joel Niemeyer, "but we don’t."

Shaktoolik residents have no other lobby outside the village. Native people now make up only 15 percent of Alaska’s 700,000 residents. And they are by no means a cohesive block. They come from different languages and cultures, and a majority of them no longer live in small villages but in cities.

But all the residents of Shaktoolik and the other doomed towns along the Alaskan coast agree on one thing: They want to keep to themselves. Every time the suggestion comes from Washington to merge several villages to save costs, they wave it off.

Matilda Hardy, president of the tribal council Photo: Dorothea Hahn

"We’re all different," Matilda Hardy says categorically, "we have different cultures and different food." The Tribal Council president looks out from her living room table at the gravel dike, the ocean and the sunset that lasts hours in late fall. She hopes the bilingual teacher at the school will get the kids excited about Inupiaq again. That the young people who left will come back. And that they will be "less concerned with technology and more concerned with language." A radio beeps in the background. Hardy’s son works for the airline. When a prop plane is on approach, he gets a radio message. Then he has to call the passengers in Shaktoolik, record their weight and that of their luggage, and bring as many as the plane can carry to the airfield.

"I don’t want to leave here," the mother says, "I hope Shaktoolik makes it another 30 years."

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