Port Heiden’s Erosion Struggle

Maybe it’s climate change, perhaps it’s just the natural course of this particular area. Whatever the root reason, the remote Alaskan village of Port Heiden is experiencing staggering coastal erosion and has already relocated once to survive.

As other parts of the United States are consumed by wildfire or slammed by unprecedented storms, Port Heiden has been suffering gradually for decades. This community consistently loses 20 to 40 feet of beach per year.

And it’s not just Port Heiden. Many villages across Alaska’s coast are severely threatened by their own unique erosion problems.

In 2009, the United States Army Corps of Engineers released a Baseline Erosion Assessment for Alaska. In this study, they listed 26 communities as needing “Priority Action.”

Sea ice, wind, and storm surges all deteriorate Port Heiden’s shores

So far, Port Heiden has had to move its tank farm, migrate the entire village inland in 1981, and must seasonally adjust its harbor infrastructure to compensate for the erosion. The culture has been impacted too. Port Heiden used to be a fairly cohesive beachside settlement, but now it’s spread out across the tundra over 4 miles.

Thankfully, everyone moved in time – most of the old village is now underwater. Can you even imagine? In their lifetimes, the elders and middle-aged citizens of Port Heiden have seen their physical sanctuaries washed away by high tides and crushing waves. Homes, lodges, the old Russian Orthodox church, the cemetery, roads, steam baths, and a landfill. All lost to the sea.

Yet, Port Heiden acted expeditiously. Other communities in Alaska, like Kivalina, are working tirelessly while counting down until their already-flooded communities are swept away.

Looking forward, there are incredible tools helping decision-makers assess and mitigate erosion issues. Though while important, such resources are only as good as the foresight with which they’re utilized.

Speculatively, the two biggest risks for Port Heiden are presently the school and relocated tank farm. While these are about a mile from the 2017 shoreline, time may be running out for them.

Crumbling cliffs and daunting waters

The earth is changing, there’s no doubt of that. It’s already here and bad stuff is happening to good people. It’s sad, but how we react is the important thing.

I choose to have conversations and attempt to spread awareness. There are stories to tell, and I can attest from experience that this is real life.

How will you react?

Learn more about Alaska’s climate science and data exploration from NOAA’s SNAP. 

(In case you were wondering, that’s the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Scenarios Network for Alaska+Arctic Planning…hooray for ridiculous acronyms!)

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