An Alaskan island finds itself losing ground

Times Staff Writer

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.

When Joe Swan Sr., 72, checked his cold cellar, a deep hole in the ground where meat is aged over the summer, he found that his caribou and seal had rotted. The surrounding permafrost had thawed, filling the pit with water.

He had heard about global warming, and some of his neighbors embraced the idea, especially after storms in 2004 and ’05 cut huge swaths out of the beach.

But he has remained skeptical because Kivalina has always been eroding. An 1838 explorer’s account said the island was about 1,800 feet wide, three times what it is today. Most of that was lost long before anybody talked about global warming. But what really got people uncomfortable was when the rest of the world started pointing at them as the leading edge of an impending climatic apocalypse.

An April report by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change named Kivalina as an example of the costs of relocating coastal communities. The village was mentioned last year on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” as an example of global warming’s toll.

Fears of global warming came to a head in September, when weather reports warned that a powerful storm was on track to strike Kivalina.

Bad storms usually came in the fall, but this time borough officials ordered an evacuation and dispatched small planes to whisk away the elders.

Mayor Austin Swan and Vice Mayor Enoch Adams Jr. went door to door, warning residents to get off the island. All-terrain vehicles were loaded onto metal skiffs, and evacuees crossed the narrow channel at the south end of the island, then rumbled down the beach in a ragged caravan.

It was dark by the time they reached the DeLong Mountain Terminal, a port 17 miles away serving the zinc mine, and boarded buses for the mine headquarters.

Raymond Hawley, 74, a hunter and carpenter, couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. It always stormed in the fall, and from what he had heard on the radio, this one didn’t sound particularly bad.

Two of his children were already off the island, in prison. He and the rest of his family were staying.

Hawley went to church and prayed. Then he went home to bed. “I woke up early the next morning, expecting a big wind,” he said. “I looked out, but there was no storm.”

As the villagers returned, some grumbled that the town administrators had ordered the evacuation to impress other government officials with Kivalina’s plight. In the old days, everybody just waited out the storm. This is, after all, the Arctic.

But Adams said that with the ocean so close to homes, the village couldn’t afford to take any chances. The $3-million sea wall, their last line of defense, wasn’t much protection.

“If we get a southwest storm, this is all going to wash away faster than you can say, ‘Oh my God,’ ” he said.

The good news, at least for those lucky enough to have a job on the wall, was that the storm had knocked out a few more chunks.

That meant a couple weeks of longer shifts, at $22.50 an hour.

The work could continue for years -- and so could the strife it caused. When the city announced it was hiring for the wall, it received 65 applications for 26 slots.

Amos Hawley, a clerk at the general store, said those who didn’t get hired were resentful because so many who got the jobs were part of the Swan family. “They’re always getting the jobs,” Hawley said. “This repair is all Swans.”

City Administrator Janet Mitchell said the city simply hired the best-trained workers. Her sister, Colleen Swan, added: “All people can do is complain about not having enough money, being broke.”

The aftermath of the storm was a hectic time.

The City Council passed a resolution declaring a “disaster emergency.” Colleen Swan flew to Anchorage to testify about coastal erosion before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery.

Adams spent days on the phone with borough officials in Kotzebue.

As he pleaded for more sandbags, the CB radio crackled in the background: Somebody had stolen a seal skin and some beluga meat during the evacuation.

“These children need to behave,” the voice on the radio ranted.

All in all, global warming made for a chaotic autumn.

“We’ve got to get off the island. It’s obvious,” Adams said.

A class at the high school was assigned to write to President Bush. “Erosion is destroying our island,” wrote Kelly Hawley, 17, a senior. “We ask if you can provide help for our poor island.”

Propping her 8-month-old baby on her lap at home, Hawley explained that the issue isn’t just about erosion, it’s about making a new start in life. “I want to move,” she said. “We have no flush toilets or running water. There’s not many places to hang out.”

The idea of moving has simmered for decades. In the early 1950s, the village held a vote on moving after some minor flooding, but the proposal failed.

The village formed a relocation committee in 1990, and held referendums in 1998 and 2000. In the last vote, a rutty patch of oceanfront tundra known as Kiniktuuraq, just a couple miles down the coast, beat out three other candidates, garnering 53 votes out of the 99 cast.

There were no offers to pay for relocation, but Adams, the vice mayor, thought the village’s chances were good because of all the publicity that had turned Kivalina into an icon of climatic disaster.

“The federal government will give us the money,” he said. “Global warming is going to sell itself.”

But after a two-year study of possible relocation sites, the Army Corps of Engineers concluded last year that Kiniktuuraq was no good. It too was vulnerable to erosion, flooding and permafrost thawing -- and would become more vulnerable as the planet warmed.

Building there would require depositing a layer of gravel at least 9 feet thick, adding $100 million to the cost of relocation, according to the report.

The corps favored two inland sites on higher ground: Imnakuk Bluffs and Tatchim Isua.

The report put village officials in a bit of a bind. The specter of global warming was now sinking their chances of moving to the site they wanted.

At the congressional hearing last month, Colleen Swan downplayed global warming’s effects on the northwest Alaskan coast, saying there wasn’t enough evidence and many people had doubts.

In October, amid grumbling over job shortages and the lack of progress on relocation, the mayor and vice mayor were voted out of office.

Pastor Sage said he was still confident Kivalina would eventually be moved. It will just take a big enough storm. “If Kivalina floods or something really bad happens, then they’ll move us,” he said. “That’s the only time we’ll get money.”

The corps’ estimate for the cheapest site is $155 million, or about $387,000 a person. The idea has come up of simply paying everyone to move to Kotzebue or Nome, but it hasn’t generated much enthusiasm.

The only other option residents see is a stronger sea wall, one made of rock. The corps estimates it would cost $33 million to protect the southern tip of the island.

For now, the workers bring more sand.

They stack sandbags Monday through Friday but stop on the weekends because there isn’t enough money.

Just before the winter ice finally began to form, Joe Swan Jr.'s wife, perched at the backhoe controls, swung another bag over the crumbling shoreline and lowered it into place.

Several empty bags, long ago stripped of their sand, bobbed in the tide like massive jellyfish.