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The residents of a tiny village on Alaska’s western coast may soon have to decide whether to become climate refugees.
As the polar regions warm twice as fast as temperate latitudes, Quinhagak, Alaska, population 729, is facing an existential crisis that is roiling Native communities up and down the coastline. For communities based around fishing and hunting, the effects of warmer winters are inescapable, from the early breakup of sea ice to the changing migratory patterns of caribou and other mammals.
The thawing permafrost buckles roads, buildings, and houses. Melting ice makes it harder to reach seals and other marine mammals that hunters rely on, and it imperils travel along waterways that were once reliably frozen. And the rising waters erode coastlines and riverbanks.
“[Warming] touches everything, from when you go to sleep at night to when you wake up,” says Vivian Korthuis, the president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a regional body for 56 tribes. “Quinhagak is at the tip of the iceberg.”
Less than a mile out, Matthew Friendly cuts the motor on his 18-foot boat and pokes an oar into the cold murky waters of the Bering Sea. At low tide this is all mud. Now it’s a bay of plenty, and Mr. Friendly, an Alaskan tribal elder, is looking for his share.
The fisherman reels out his buoy-tethered nets until they trace a scimitar on the glistening sea. Then he waits for a splash that might, just might, be the first king salmon of the season. Other boats are also waiting in the bay. “Everyone is trying their luck today,” he says.
From here, Mr. Friendly’s village of Quinhagak (population 729) is a gap-toothed band of colored houses set back from the shore. Three wind turbines spin overhead. No other settlements are visible, only the snowy peaks of the Ahklun mountain range to the south and the Kanektok River estuary where the salmon – also known as chinook – go to spawn. The sun is high overhead. It won’t set until 11 p.m.
Mr. Friendly pulls on his yellow waders and reels in his nets, but the catch is disappointing: several rough-edged flounder and a solitary smelt. He tosses them back into the sea. “There’s not much yet, but by June it will be heavy,” he says, piling up his nets.
Come summer, more fishermen will ply these rich waters on Alaska’s west coast. From the air, this lowland delta, covering an area the size of Nebraska, is a tawny-and-cobalt expanse of tundra and tributaries and lakes, its looping rivers etching a dazzling curlicue.
But the waterways that giveth also taketh. Climate change is causing Quinhagak to lose its land to erosion, to rising seas and restless rivers, and to the thawing of the frozen land on which it sits. Buildings are sinking and cracking. Bogs are spreading. Each year brings less snowfall and more uncertainty.
Alaska’s harsh climate has always favored those who can live with its extremes, but rapid change – polar regions are warming twice as fast as temperate latitudes – is causing an existential crisis that is roiling Native communities up and down the coastline.
Global warming has birthed a new category of refugee, one displaced not by war or famine but by climatic variations that make it impossible to stay in place. Quinhagak is not there yet. But its plight is already raising profound political, legal, and moral questions about who gets saved from a slow climatic death and at what cost to society and to the culture of a community.
“Quinhagak is at the tip of the iceberg,” says Vivian Korthuis, the president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, a regional body for 56 tribes in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
For these subsistence communities, based around fishing and hunting, the effects of warmer winters on their way of life are inescapable, from the early breakup of sea ice to the changing migratory patterns of caribou and other mammals. “It touches everything, from when you go to sleep at night to when you wake up,” says Ms. Korthuis.
What happens out in rural Alaska, far from the smokestack industries and teeming cities that spew carbon into the atmosphere, may seem remote from the politics of climate change. It isn’t. More than 600 million people live within 30 feet of sea level, including residents in U.S. cities like Boston and Miami. They may one day face the same fate as the people of Quinhagak.
So the villages here are canaries in the collective coal mine – carriers of bleak tidings from a warmer future.
The Russians were the first to arrive on Alaska’s western rim in the 1700s, bringing cartographers and missionaries – and the smallpox that would decimate indigenous populations, including the Yup’ik Eskimos living in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
After the U.S. purchase of Alaska, Quinhagak became a barge stop on trading routes along the Kuskokwim, and a Moravian church mission opened in 1893. Over the next few decades, a post office and school followed.
The region saw fewer settlers than other parts of Alaska that experienced a frontier rush for gold and other resources. People in villages like Quinhagak continued to thrive on hunting and foraging, moving between summer and winter camps, while being slowly drawn into an economy underwritten by federal government expansion.
Eventually Yup’ik communities would settle permanently by the airstrips, schools, and ports that were springing up. For Quinhagak that spot was a bend in the Kanektok River, a peninsula known as the Point.
When the river changed course in the 1970s and engulfed the Point, the residents of Quinhagak made their first managed retreat. Nobody was too surprised; the town’s Yup’ik name means “new river channel.” The community had plenty of room to build inland on the tundra that stretched to the horizon. Nobody could take their land, which was owned either by tribal members or the village corporation.
Nobody, that is, except a rising thermometer.
“Let me get my metal stick,” says George Johnson, opening a red box outside the modest wood-framed building that doubles as city hall and the post office. Like most buildings here it has a metal roof and sits on stilts above the ground.
Mr. Johnson has worked for the city for five decades and serves as its director of public works. Armed with a giant tent peg, he walks over to a boggy patch of ground between two houses. His stick sinks deep into the soil. He says that the rule of thumb used to be that you hit frozen tundra 18 inches down. Now it goes 3- to 5-feet down into sodden soil before hitting anything solid. “It’s only May and there’s water everywhere,” he says.
It’s the same story across Alaska and around the Arctic. Permafrost, the continuously frozen layer of earth that in some places has stayed frozen for millennia, is thawing as the planet warms. As it melts, the ground slumps and becomes unstable, buckling roads, buildings, and houses. It also forms bowls that fill with rain and snowmelt, creating new wetlands that expel trapped methane. Arctic permafrost holds up to 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, much more than is now in the atmosphere, which is why climate scientists worry about it thawing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body, estimates that by 2100 as much as 81% of the world’s near-surface permafrost could be lost.
A warming Arctic also means less sea ice, which shields coastal villages from storm surges and tides that can push up to 30 miles inland. The ice cover in the Bering Sea in February this year was the lowest recorded since whalers began keeping records in 1850.
For hunters the shrinking ice makes it harder to reach seals and other marine mammals that they rely on, part of a culture of subsistence in which nature’s offerings mark the seasons.
It also imperils travel along frozen waterways that are rural Alaska’s winter roads. Several people fell through the ice and died this year in snowmobile accidents, including one from Quinhagak.
“You don’t know if it’s really thick enough to cross,” says Jonathan Alexie, a father of three and, like almost everyone here, an avid hunter. “You don’t know how dangerous it is.”
The rising sea and its river estuary are gnawing away at the village at a combined rate of around 300 feet a year, according to the tribal administration. That rate of erosion is uneven and uncertain, and river flooding can be diverted or defended. But it’s also true that a major storm could redraw the local topography overnight and force a mass evacuation.
“We’re an island surrounded by lakes, rivers, and oceans. That’s what it feels like, and the island keeps shrinking,” says Jacki Cleveland, the city’s director of natural resources.
Her own house is close to an eroding riverbank. If and when its banks collapse, the river is likely to spare her but flood the house where her aunt lives and cut off road access.
“I never thought in my lifetime we would move,” says Ms. Cleveland, who was born in 1979. “I thought that would only become a reality for future generations.”
It’s after 5 p.m. when Ferdinand Cleveland Jr. steers his white Ford pickup onto the beach. A steady wind rakes the exposed slate-gray sand and its crumbling tundra cliffs.
The gravel road to the beach passes a village cemetery and newer houses before swerving south to the wind turbines, a landfill, and a sewage lagoon. Keeping that lagoon intact is one of the many tasks that weighs on Mr. Cleveland, the tribal administrator (and a cousin of Ms. Cleveland).
Today he’s at the beach to check coastal monitoring equipment, including a time-lapse camera that records storm surges. Its memory card is supposed to be swapped out every three months but Mr. Cleveland, who wears mirrored sunglasses, a baseball cap, and T-shirt under a black windbreaker, hasn’t been out here since January.
As he gets closer, he spies a metal pole but no camera. “I think someone took it,” he says, his voice calm. “I’ll have to put up a new one.”
Near the empty pole is a row of black-and-white wooden stakes, 20 feet apart, that run perpendicular to the beach. The village installed them in 2017; one has already been lost to the waves.
For Quinhagak to survive the land erosion requires outside help, primarily federal dollars to maintain or rebuild public infrastructure, like the sewage system, as well as defray the cost of new housing and other services. But the town needs to prove its hardship; hence the monitoring gear. “We need the data to apply for grants,” says Mr. Cleveland.
Quinhagak is one of eight Yup’ik villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta that is working with the Alaska Institute for Justice, a nonprofit in Anchorage, to track erosion and other climate-related effects and tap state and federal agencies for compensation. (Seven other Native villages farther north are also participating.) The institute has also installed a permafrost monitor in Quinhagak to record the ground temperature.
“It’s about what’s happening now, and based on what’s happening now, what do you think will happen in the future,” says Robin Bronen, the executive director and a research scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
That future is arriving faster than expected. “It’s really painful to see the changes happening. ... We’re in a phase of unprecedented climate crisis,” she says.
Under federal law, slow-moving disasters like coastal erosion or the inability to live off the land aren’t eligible for relief funds the way they are for earthquakes or tornadoes. So when tundra turns to a pond, don’t expect the Federal Emergency Management Agency to show up. Last year, however, Alaska added a new category to its hazard mitigation planning: usteq, a Yup’ik word that means catastrophic permafrost collapse.
While coining new terms for disasters may help, Mr. Cleveland simply wants to know what he should do now. A tribal health agency recently identified five at-risk buildings, including the village’s clinic and preschool center. Then there’s the lagoon near the sea; a team from the Army Corps of Engineers is coming to inspect and evaluate the risk.
Partial retreat is one thing. But will the entire population need to relocate?
That’s what’s happening farther up the coast to the waterlogged Yup’ik village of Newtok. The first families are due to move by October to a new village 11 miles away. Riverbank erosion and permafrost collapse led Newtok to agree in 1994 to abandon its village; in 2003 it traded land with the federal government for the new, drier site. But the community of 350 struggled for years to raise enough money to make its move.
“I’m not sure we’ll have 20 years to relocate with the state of erosion here,” says Mr. Cleveland.
But permafrost loss is not just about the future. In Quinhagak it is also a window on the past.
Growing up in Quinhagak, Warren Jones walked the beach with his grandmother collecting driftwood. When they found arrowheads and wooden dolls, she explained these were the work of his ancestors. He saw them as proof that the stories the elders told of an ancient Yup’ik settlement undone by warfare were true.
“Growing up we heard about the war back then. All the grandparents told us: Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” says Mr. Jones.
Many years later the Yup’ik elders cautioned Mr. Jones, now the manager of Qanirtuuq Inc., the village corporation, not to exhume the past. They said the objects belonged to their ancestors. But he persisted. He sent photos of the artifacts to archaeology departments across the U.S. None showed any interest in a remote dig in Alaska.
Then Rick Knecht, an American working at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, heard about what he was doing. In 2009, he began to excavate a site that is now known as Nunalleq. What he found was astonishing: thousands of ceremonial and everyday artifacts that had lain frozen in the ground for more then three centuries.
“The excavation gave us the first look” at the Yup’ik culture that predated European contact, he says. It was a culture “more sophisticated and stratified than we expected.”
It also confirmed the oral records of warfare in the 1600s and a deadly attack on Nunalleq. The war came during five centuries of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age, when food scarcity likely led to intravillage conflict in Alaska, just as global warming threatens to do today.
More than 60,000 objects have been excavated from Nunalleq so far. Inside a blue-roofed building behind Qanirtuuq’s office, Mr. Jones pulls open wide drawers of exquisite objects yielded up by the tundra, from wooden masks and tattoo needles to bone harpoon bits and fishing weights. When the masks were lifted from the soil they had human hair attached; woven baskets had green blades of grass. “The hair was real,” he says, his voice rising. “I was there!”
The Nunalleq Culture and Archaeology Center opened last year. It holds the world’s largest collection of prehistoric North American Native artifacts, a source of cultural identity and a tangible connection to the past.
Mr. Jones takes pride in the schoolchildren who come to gawk at the artifacts, since it’s a powerful way to bind them to their roots. His eldest son, Stephan, worked on the project and later became the center manager. In early May, however, he unexpectedly died while in Anchorage.
The work that Stephan supported continues. Mr. Knecht is bringing another team of archaeologists and volunteers in July. He’s sure there’s more to find, both at Nunalleq and other sites, but he’s racing against Arctic warming: Exposed objects heaved up from melting tundra rot quickly in the damp surroundings. “It’s like finding a museum that’s on fire,” he says.
The dire threat posed by climate change to this region is not breaking news. In 2009 the Army Corps of Engineers identified 31 Native communities at greatest risk from rising waters and eroding land. (Quinhagak was not listed.) That study hasn’t been updated, but a tally of villages at risk today would likely be much longer, in part because of rapid thawing, says Dave Williams, a project manager in Anchorage for the Corps. “We have many, many more communities saying, ‘We’re losing permafrost and our buildings are sinking,’” he says.
Some villages can retreat to higher ground without having to relocate entirely, he says. Sea walls and other defenses can buy time for retreats. Other communities face no good options because “everything they’ve got is pretty much wetlands.”
Either way, it’s an expensive proposition. Newtok, the first to move, is expected to cost more than $100 million. There are no roads on the tundra; materials move by barge and only in season. “The costs are high and nothing comes free,” says Mr. Williams, an engineer in Alaska for 40 years.
When Mr. Cleveland talks to villagers in Quinhagak about displacement he chooses his words carefully. “I don’t talk about relocating. I talk about rebuilding,” he says.
The tribe has identified a potential site inland on drier ground, a contingency plan that has yet to coalesce. For now, Mr. Cleveland is trying to maintain infrastructure and replace unfit housing, but there are limits on what a tribal entity with an annual budget of $500,000 can do in the absence of federal policy to address slow-moving climate disasters. “Our world is changing. We still don’t completely see the future,” he says.
Nor do the climate scientists who model possible planetary futures. If global emissions slow dramatically, the pace of sea level rise would slow, too. But even a dramatic slowdown would not be enough to spare low-lying areas like the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta from the accumulated effects of surging tides and sinking permafrost.
What happens then? The moral and legal questions of who gets saved and who pays for it are just starting to be asked. As chair of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, Fran Ulmer advises the president and Congress on national and international research priorities in the region. She knows well the acute distress of Alaska Native villages – and of their economic bind. Still, she finds it hard to imagine a federal mandate to rebuild every climate-affected village, whatever the cost. “Who is going to pay for it?” she asks.
Moving people to towns and cities would be more cost effective than spending $100 million on a new village. It would also be controversial in the context of tribal sovereignty. Another option might be to consolidate tribes in existing settlements that are still within reach of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds.
Two years ago, Ms. Ulmer spoke to tribal leaders working with the Alaska Institute for Justice on climate monitoring. When the conversation turned to future strategies, she was struck by the resistance to the idea of consolidation. “It’s very culturally fraught with the issue of, do you respect our culture and our right to practice our culture in the place where our culture is still relevant,” she says.
To the Yup’ik, steeped in self-reliance and adaptation, abandoning their lands to erosion is unthinkable. Ms. Korthuis, the regional leader, puts it simply. “The tribes will never leave,” she says. “When the environment changes the tribes will still be here.”
This story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment.