The Alaskan town of Utqiaġvik is perched precariously on the wild coastline between the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. It’s also on the frontlines of the climate crisis, continuously fending off the existential threat of coastal erosion.
Sea ice could once be relied upon to absorb the impact of fierce waves and storms, protecting the nearby settlement and its coastline. But the ice is melting—allowing storms to ravage the town and damaging its roads, drinking water and a decommissioned military landfill near the beach.
The community is no stranger to weather extremes. Generations of residents have responded successfully to difficult changes in the past. However, the accelerating pace of change is starting to outstrip the community’s ability to cope, causing many to wonder just how resilient they can be.
Some towns in similar predicaments have adapted by moving inland. But the cost to pack up and relocate all 4,400 or so Utqiaġvik residents would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars—and it might create as many problems as it solves. More than 60 per cent of the town’s residents are Iñupiat Eskimo—and while Utqiaġvik is a modern town, many people still rely on traditional activities like hunting, fishing and whaling to feed their families. These activities depend to a large extent on the presence of sea ice.
In normal times, Utqiaġvik’s coastline was edged with ice almost year-round. But the ice-free periods are getting longer and longer, forcing some residents to alter not only how they hunt, but even how they conceptualize their relationships with the environment and animals.
[T]he Inuit people are connected by the animals we respect, the animals we hunt, the animals we subsist off,
says Eben Hopson, an Utqiaġvik resident and Alaska Geographic Arctic Youth Ambassador.
By the land, our ancestors walked thousands of years before these westernised settlements were made that we now call home and our villages. By the ocean, we have paddled to get the biggest bowhead whale to the smallest sea bird.
Hopson says one of the most significant issues preying on his mind these days is climate change. To him, the term means “loss of culture, loss of the land and loss of the people that have called the Arctic home for the past thousands of years.”
It’s affecting life in Utqiagvik on a daily basis, he adds.