There is a quiet beach community in Northwest Alaska. It is the westernmost settlement on the continent of North America. This place is called Wales, and it is changing swiftly.
This photo, taken aerially 16 years ago, does justice to neither Wales nor its impending issues. It was released in a 2007 report detailing erosion data from Wales. It’s since gotten worse. You can find the report online, issued by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska District.
In 2015, I got to experience this coastal village and learned things that would forever shape my perspective on climate change.
We flew in on a blustery August day. Our aircraft was small, seating just six passengers. We flew north from Nome, making one stop on the way at Tin City (not an actual settlement, but a skeleton-crewed long range radar site).
Landing at Tin City involved a precarious runway with a sheer sea-facing cliff on one end and a massive mountain on the other (exhilarating stuff). Tin City gets its name from the metal extracted from that giant mountain in the early 1900s.
That same mountain, Cape Mountain, wraps itself around Wales and its beaches. Actually, it looks almost like a Stegosaurus, with blocky rocks jutting out at all ends of a gently sloping ridge.
As soon as we deplaned in Wales, I observed how quickly the sky moved overhead. It swept by in cascades of dense dancing clouds. As the winds whipped past, the air brought sweet salted scents of the sea.
I tried to soak it in and breathe deeply, but a big man on a four wheeler was angrily staring at me from the other side of the runway. I hoped staying calm would dissuade his stare, but he kept me in his sights unblinkingly until we left. (Later on, this individual lost his cool a few times – verbally lashing out, both at visitors and his fellow locals – with explosions tinged with xenophobia and anger).
My colleague and I worked on the beach every day of our visit. It was fantastic and we met fascinating people during off hours. A pair of friendly professors shared our lodgings, ornithologists setting traps for rare birds. An ancient old woman that walked the town every day, hunched and oh-so-slow, though all the more gratified for it.
The most impactful conversations were with an elder, a patron of the town with long familial histories in Wales and Shishmaref (an island community, just northeast of Wales).
This wise friendly man spoke in a somewhat scattered fashion, but over the course of a few mornings and evenings, he clued me in to precious tidbits about the past and future of Wales.
At one point, Wales was a bustling village of over 500 souls. Largely thanks to whaling, fishing, and its beneficial location for passing ships. But the 1918 influenza epidemic shattered the population; it’s never recovered, and there are only ~150 humans now.
“The beach used to look different too,” my new friend said over coffee one morning after he had told the dour saga of orphaned children being divvied up among the few adults to miraculously survive the flu outbreak.
I raised an eyebrow quizzically, not really knowing what he meant. “Come on,” he chuckled grimly as he sat up and walked to a large framed photograph. He was right. The picture had been taken from the top of Cape Mountain, shooting northward to Wales and its coastline.
After almost a week of working and playing on that beach, I felt awestruck by how different the waterline looked 50 years prior. Like a fool, I forgot to take a picture of that photo – but here’s the next best thing: an online shoreline tracker. (Brought to you by the fine folks at the Alaska Division of Geological & Geophysical Surveys).
Wales is just one place among dozens of Alaskan villages experiencing dire shifts to their shores. Neighboring Shishmaref’s issue is much more urgent, as vital village infrastructure has already been impacted by regular erosion rates and exacerbated by storm surge.
The situation has gotten so bad that the 600 person village is voting on whether or not to move. To be continued August 16, 2016…
It gets worse. On the north coast of Alaska (oft called the North Slope or just “the Slope”), erosion is occurring decades faster than anyone thought. We’ve already hit 2040 levels at some sites. Though these sites are just military installations, Slope communities like Barrow are seeing the effects too.
Permafrost is another crucial consideration. “The ice in the ground acts like glue,” one geotechnical engineer working in the village informed me. “As it melts and degrades, the ground can sink, destabilize, and erode much faster.”
When you combine deteriorating permafrost with rising sea levels and storm surge, it’s a recipe for disaster in almost every community near or above the Arctic Circle.
This problem will continue to develop. Leaders are acting. But one thing is clear, with 178 communities of 392 reporting erosion issues (from small to serious), Alaska’s population is certainly on the threshold of a major challenge.
“We’re tough, strong people,” the kindly elder in Wales remarked on our last day, “but we don’t always work together.” Unity will help, of course. But many questions remain.
My new friend told me how he was lucky enough to testify in Washington DC on this matter, among many others, such as over-fishing, education, and health care. He hopes his participation in the formal bureaucracy of our nation will inspire young generations to speak up and act when the time comes.
Every night after dinner, I took to walking the sands of Wales, typically peering off at the Russian territory of Big Diomede island or combing the ground for shells, bones, and neat rocks. I walked and I thought.
Climate change is something nearly everyone has heard about, maybe from movies or perhaps news outlets. But to experience the grim resolve of someone living through these traumatic geologic alterations…it’s something else entirely.
Some beaches may not last. All the more reason to appreciate them while we can.
© Chasen Cunitz and AKv2v.com, 2016
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Alaska: Village to Village