Eben W. Hopson looks out over the Chuckchi Sea from a pile of sand bags. Bright sunshine sparkles off the clear, blue ocean. There isn’t a cloud in the sky or any ice in the ocean (even though there should be) on this beautiful day in mid-July.
Utqiaġvik sits right on the coast, in between the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and is the largest community in Alaska’s North Slope Borough.
This large Alaskan community is dealing with the impacts of a warming Arctic and the resulting coastal erosion. The erosion is brought on by a loss of sea ice. Sea ice along the coast used to absorb the impact of damaging waves and storms and protect the community from coastal erosion.
Mayor and lifelong resident, Harry K. Brower, Jr is adamant that for generations his ancestors and the communities that came before him successfully adapted to change.
But things are changing much more rapidly today and the ability to pack-up and simply move over no longer exists. Not to mention that it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to move everybody in the community.
The community built a temporary wall of sandbags, but this isn’t doing much to stop the loss of coastline. A more permanent structure would cost $380 million.
This community has over 4000 residents and many rely on hunting, fishing and whaling. But these activities depend heavily on the existence of sea ice.
[T]he Inuit people are connected by the animals we respect, the animals we hunt, the animals we subsist off. By the land our ancestors walked thousands of years before these westernised settlements were made that we now call home and our villages, says Eben.
Utqiagvik is also threatened by permafrost thaw.
Utqiaġvik has built much of its infrastructure, including homes, schools and businesses on permafrost and now the ground is turning to mush. Permafrost is frozen soil, composed of soil, gravel, and sand bound together by ice. Recent research shows that permafrost is thawing 70 years earlier than anybody thought it would.