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An Alaskan island finds itself losing ground

As global warming erodes their world, the residents of Kivalina battle the elements -- and now one another.

November 25, 2007|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

KIVALINA, ALASKA — Beneath a moonlit Arctic sky, Joe Swan Jr. and most of his 12-person crew were taking a cigarette break when a dump truck arrived and emptied another load of black sand at their feet.

The backhoe driver, who happened to be his wife, gunned the engine, spewing a diesel haze into the air as she dug into the pile and filled another 2,500-pound sandbag for the sea wall shielding the island from the Chukchi Sea.

The crew has been repairing the $3-million wall almost since the day it was completed in October 2006.

They bring more sand. The ocean takes it away.

Kivalina is disappearing, the victim of a warming world and a steady natural erosion that probably began long before the Eskimos settled here 100 years ago.

"You see the white water out there?" Swan said, pointing to some ripples a couple hundred feet offshore. "That's where the beach used to be."

When he was growing up here in the 1970s, the ocean would freeze each fall into a slush the thickness of mashed potatoes. Waves from the storms would crash into the ice, not the shore.

Lately, the autumn ocean has been a vast, iceless expanse that leaves the beach vulnerable to waves. The island is now a sliver of sand and permafrost less than 600 feet across at its widest point. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will be 10 to 15 years before the ground beneath the clump of clapboard houses washes away.

The prospect of Kivalina's disappearance has set off its own storm, jarring a place that, like most of global warming's early victims, has long struggled on the fringes of the planet.

Most of the 400 residents -- filled with dreams of a new village with running water, better homes and, perhaps, a chance at a job -- want to leave.

The big questions are: To where? And how?

Village leaders have squabbled for years with state and federal officials over relocating, which could cost as much as $250 million. No one has offered to pay.

Residents themselves are divided over where to go. Some want to move to higher ground. Others want to stay on the coast, even at the risk of seeing their new homes eventually disappear to erosion and rising seas.

It's an impasse that has left them stuck on a shrinking mound of sand that even their ancestors thought was a lousy place to build a town.

"We'd love to move -- get off this island," Swan said.

There is no heroic battle to stop the advancing water.

"Every time they do something, the surge comes in and destroys all their work," said tribal administrator Colleen Swan, who walks by the wall every day. "It's like a bucket that keeps developing holes."

From the air, the island of Kivalina looks like a giant tadpole.

The tail is a barren wisp of sand six miles long. The ocean steadily laps at one side. A silty lagoon fed by two rivers is on the other.

"Kivalina is nothing but fine sand," said Oscar Swan, 84, as a grandson served him canned sausages for lunch while static buzzed over a citizens band radio.

Located 85 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Kivalina was once an occasional hunting camp for the Eskimos, who moved with the seasons in their constant search for seals, caribou and fish.

When the U.S. government started building a settlement here in 1905, it chose the widest section of the island -- the head of the tadpole. As the story goes, a sea captain delivering lumber for construction of a school saw a couple of Eskimos along the shore. It was as good a spot as any to unload.

Today, about 70 homes sit on short stilts above the permafrost. Most homes have no running water and the standard toilet is a 5-gallon bucket. A shower costs $3 at the "washeteria."

Life in Kivalina can be as bleak as the landscape.

There is little work in town, and those who want to make a decent living have to head to the borough seat in Kotzebue or the Red Dog Mine, the world's largest zinc operation, about 45 miles away. For those who stay, the center of social life is the city-run bingo hall, where the average adult loses $750 a year.

Last year, three people committed suicide. In the last eight years, there have been three killings.

"Some have gotten numb to their pain," said Lowell Sage, the pastor at Kivalina Friends Church, whose brother was stabbed to death by a neighbor several years ago.

Despite the problems, most people choose to stay. It's a familiar place at the junction of the ocean, the tundra and two rivers. Whaling expeditions set out each spring. And all over town, the hides of freshly killed caribou and seals hang from wooden racks.

"You take our hunting, fishing, gathering away, you take our culture," Sage said as he pulled a beaver-skin cap over his ears during a hunting trip up the Wulik River.

It's often biting cold, but in recent years, people have begun noticing tiny changes. For the first time anybody could remember, it rained in January. Furnaces were turned off after May.

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