Living on the Edge
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full....
A RISING SEA is not something that may happen in the future. It is already upon us. Planners turned down construction of a large residential development on the Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, because it would be flooded by rising seas. In England, regulators declared that six small villages on the Norfolk Broads northeast of London will need to be abandoned as sea level rises. To avoid the rising sea, the 580 Inupiat Eskimo inhabitants of Shishmaref, Alaska, will likely be moved to the mainland at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars per resident. On barrier islands along the Pacific coast of Colombia where the sea level is rising with particular rapidity (because the land is also sinking), moving buildings and entire villages to higher ground is already a routine matter. In rural Cape Town, South Africa, a "blue line" may be established seaward of which nothing can be built because it would lie within an expected flood zone from sea level rise. Plans to abandon many Pacific atolls are now on the drawing board because they will soon be flooded by the expanding oceans. And in South Carolina, retreat from the shoreline in response to the sea level rise is now official state policy.
Still, despite strong evidence of global warming and attendant sea level rise, many communities, governments, and developers continue to ignore the inevitability of a continued rise in sea level and the corresponding increase in shoreline erosion. Singapore continues to fill in its bays to create more low-elevation land for development. In a stunning act of developmental hubris, the government of Dubai has constructed spectacular, palm-shaped artificial islands along the Persian Gulf providing space for hundreds of homes, all at low elevation and immediately susceptible to even modest sea level rise. In the United States, the State of Florida seems content to spend billions of dollars in a losing battle to hold the shoreline in place with artificial beaches, breakwaters, and seawalls while high-rise beachfront construction continues apace. And state and federal officials continue to insist that most Mississippi Delta communities can be maintained in their present location despite recent rapid sea level rise augmented by subsidence (sinking) of the land.
Global warming is changing many things: the extent of ice on the surface of the Arctic Ocean, the extent of mountain glaciers, patterns of rainfall and drought around the world, and routes of ocean currents. As the oceans warm, wide swaths of coral reefs, responsible for much of the diversity of marine life, may be degraded as human activities prevent their natural expansion to the north or to the south away from the equator. Shoreline-hugging and biologically important salt marshes and their warm-water equivalent, mangroves, already seriously reduced by the activities of humans, will further degrade as sea level rises. The distribution and the migration pathways of land mammals, birds, and insects will change, and some species will disappear entirely. Mosquitoes will appear in the high Arctic.
Of all the ongoing and expected changes from global warming, however, the increase in the volume of the oceans and accompanying rise in the level of the sea will be the most immediate, the most certain, the most widespread, and the most economically visible in its effects.
Substantial sea level change will play a critical role in humankind's future just as it sometimes has in the past, when it even became the subject of myth. Plato, for example, suggested that nine thousand years before his time an ancient civilization had existed on an island called Atlantis, only to disappear somehow beneath the waves. Some writers today cling to a belief that the Bahama Banks hold the answer to the island's disappearance, that the long, narrow bands of underwater limestone there (actually cemented beach sand) are remnants of either the mythical city's roadways or its building foundations. Others of the Atlantis faithful believe that a cataclysmic event such as a volcanic eruption destroyed the island, perhaps the same eruption that destroyed the Aegean island of Thera about 1500 BC. Still others believe Plato made up the whole thing.
In any case, it has been established that during a period forty thousand to sixty thousand years ago in which sea level was considerably lower than it is today, Aborigines walked across an exposed land bridge between New Guinea and Australia, and some of these early Australians walked on from Australia to Tasmania. The first Americans may also have taken advantage of a more recent comparatively low sea level, perhaps eleven thousand years ago, to cross the Bering Land Bridge from Asia to North America. Stone Age people at the same time must have crossed back and forth between the British Isles and Europe. Eventually, as we know, the sea rose and covered these ancient access routes, changing the face of the earth and the lives of its people.
Many societies are candidates to be the first in our time to suffer catastrophic impacts from impending sea level changes. Eventually, every nation with a coast will feel the effects of sea level rise, but in this chapter, we tell the stories of a few that are most immediately and tragically vulnerable. It's a cruel irony that many of these societies, for the most part non-industrial, have played almost no role in the global warming that lies behind so much of current sea level rise; in that sense, they are truly innocent victims of the industrialized world.
Arctic Islands: Abandoning a Sinking Ship
The Arctic seaside villages of Alaska are made up mostly of clusters of government-issue small homes. Houses there are tightly closed and heavily insulated with vestibules between outer and inner doors to prevent the extreme Arctic cold from penetrating the house when someone opens the outer door. These houses stand in sharp contrast to the thatched-roof dwellings perpetually open to the ocean breezes on the atolls of the South Pacific that are also in danger from sea level rise.
Satellite measurements show that the level of the sea is rising in the Arctic Ocean, but that's only part of the problem facing these high-latitude shoreline dwellers. In earlier times, Arctic islands were completely protected from the ocean by ice for most of the year.
Because of warming atmospheric and oceanic temperatures, ice-free conditions— normally only two to three months in extent—have lengthened to four and even five months along the North Slope of Alaska and even longer along the shores of the Chukchi and Bering seas to the south. Longer ice-free periods subject the shoreline day after day to the high waves associated with fall and winter storms.
Summertime melting of permafrost (permanently frozen and therefore solid ground) underlying shoreline bluffs and beaches compounds the problem: melting of the ice effectively removes the cement that made the beach a natural seawall and thus greatly facilitates erosion at the shoreline. Add an ever-rising sea level to this picture and the situation becomes dire indeed.
Two Alaskan shoreline villages that have garnered considerable attention are Kivalina and Shishmaref. Kivalina is an eight-mile-long (13 km) Arctic barrier island northwest of Kotzebue in the Chukchi Sea. This community of four hundred was originally a winter encampment for Inupiat Eskimos but is now inhabited year-round. Besides a rapidly receding shoreline on both sides of the island, the village suffers from serious local river pollution emanating from the Red Dog zinc mine, located up the Kivalina River on the mainland. The villagers have filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claiming the agency is not enforcing clean water regulations; ironically, the mine itself is on Native Corporation land.
Shishmaref, also on the shores of the Chukchi Sea, is located just south of the Arctic Circle. There are 580 people in this subsistence village located on 4-mile-long (6 km) Sarichef Island, one of the islands that make up the Shishmaref barrier island chain.
A close look at Shishmaref's options and deliberations can give us some perspective on many of the issues that will confront island beachfront communities everywhere in the uncertain future of global change. For Shishmaref, the future is now; and for the hundreds of other beachfront communities on barrier islands from Maine to Texas, and around the world, the future is not far off.
The plight of Shishmaref has attracted global attention. In fact, it has become the poster child of the Arctic global change and sea level rise problem. Since 2002, more than sixty-five media crews from as far away as Sweden and Japan have come to the relatively remote island. Its particular attractiveness to the media may come from a combination of relatively easy access by small plane from Nome or Kotzebue and the welcoming presence of Tony Weyiouanna, community transportation manager and a spokesperson of exceptional skill.
Shishmaref is a village of contrasts. During a February 2007 visit to the village, accompanied by Alaskan geologist Owen Mason, we entered our rented house through a heat-saving vestibule and stepped past a freshly killed white Arctic hare on the floor. A recently skinned and frozen reindeer carcass hung over the balcony on the front of the house. The house had no running water, and the toilet consisted of a large pail in a bathroom. But the 40-inch (100 cm) TV set in front of two comfortable sofas offered fifty channels.
A winter visit to Shishmaref quickly dispels any doubt that it is a subsistence society. A walk through the village in cold weather is a walk through a giant freezer. In the yards of homes, along with abandoned snowmobiles, dogsleds, four-wheelers, and various derelict household items that peek out from beneath the snow, are seal, caribou/reindeer, and rabbit carcasses in various stages of skinning and butchering. Meat and hides are perched on racks, balconies, and banisters to keep them out of reach of the few dogs allowed to roam freely through the village. Most of the dozens of sled dogs, however, offer no threat to the frozen meat. They remain chained to steel posts even in the coldest weather, with their only pastime for days on end consisting of barking at any and all passersby. Between the barking dogs and the roaring snowmobiles, an Eskimo village in this region can be a very noisy place in winter. And it's not much quieter in summer either, when the four-wheelers zip about with multiple passengers and supplies.
Unlike their Inupiat Eskimo brethren on the North Slope of Alaska along the Beaufort Sea, Shishmaref residents do not consume whale meat as part of their normal diet. The nearby continental shelf of the Chukchi Sea is so gentle and flat that whales don't swim close enough to shore to be taken by harpoons from small boats. The whalebones and baleen carved by these villagers for sale to craft stores in Alaska's cities are from the occasional dead whale that washes up on the beaches.
Primary subsistence foods for Shishmaref villagers include fish (salmon, cod, whitefish, trout, and herring), moose, musk oxen, ducks, geese, ptarmigan, walrus, a variety of berries, and various greens. Two small grocery stores provide bananas, oranges, and other supplemental foods. Some dollar bills in the cash registers are worn almost white, a reflection of a society with limited contact with the outside world.
The tide range on Shishmaref's shores is on the order of 1 foot (0.3 m), and surges during extreme storms could raise the water level as much as 8 feet (2.4 m) above the high tide line. Such a storm surge would flood much of the island, which now has lost its protective oceanfront dune ridge.
Shishmaref's home island of Sarichef, known as Kigiktaq Island before the arrival of Russian explorers in the early 1800s, has been occupied continuously on a seasonal basis for at least four centuries and probably much longer than that. Lieutenant Otto Von Kotzebue named the inlet at the north end of the island Shishmaref after a crew member, a name adopted eventually for the village itself and for the lagoon behind the village. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Eskimos may have used the island only as a winter camp; during the warmer season, they spread out to other islands and the mainland to hunt and fish. Their descendants do the same today, occupying summer hunting camps that were established hundreds of years ago, although now there is a year-round population in Shishmaref. At the end of the nineteenth century, the harbor at Shishmaref became a drop-off point for supplies to the goldfields to the south, and the village began its year-round existence.
Today the village, by an inhabitant's description in a 2002 newsletter, is comparable to a third world community: "Most families do not have running water and sewer services in their homes. The lack of roads, high costs of fresh foods, inadequate fuel storage for home heating and transportation, exorbitant costs of basic services and the constant anxiety caused by beach erosion is an excessive burden carried by all members of the community."
Add the multifaceted problems associated with global warming to those of living with financial hardship and one is left asking, So what can Shishmaref do?
Alternative #1. Hang in there, and build, maintain, and reinforce seawalls.
The problem with this approach is obvious—as the year-round sea ice shrinks and summer (with its attendant open water) lengthens, as storms become more frequent, as more permafrost melts each summer, as sea level rises, and as the waves grow larger, the wall must grow larger or community damage will increase. Since the 1950s, when erosion first became a recognized problem, the community has taken many measures to solve the problem. These measures included using oil drums and sandbags to construct seawalls, and when conditions grew desperate, locals threw everything that normally resided in yards into the raging surf, including kitchen sinks, old dogsleds, and junked snowmobiles, in an attempt to reduce storm impacts.
In 1984, a 1,700-foot (520 m) seawall made of gabions—wire baskets filled with stones—was installed. The baskets fared well, but storms excavated the sand behind the wall and the shoreline continued to retreat, albeit at a slower pace. At one point, an unusual wall consisting of 25-pound (11 kg) cement blocks linked by cables to form a mat was laid up against the dune face. The wall was designed to bend a bit when sea ice pushed up against it. Much of this structure failed in less than a year (parts of it began to collapse even while it was under construction).
As geologist Owen Mason sees it, construction of the various seawalls has actually exacerbated Shishmaref's survival problem. All the natural dune and beach protection has gone, and the narrowed and steepened beach in front of the walls enhances the impact of storm waves. By 2007, the shoreline was retreating on either side of the walled portions of the community. At this rate, soon, perhaps in a decade, Shishmaref will be a mini-cape protruding into the sea, a magnet for waves.
By the end of 2006, around $34 million had been spent on Shishmaref seawalls, including a stone wall costing $16 million. Spending $34 million, with no contribution from the community, for what is at best a temporary solution to the erosion problem for a village of fewer than 600 people is mind-boggling. In the contiguous United States, a favorable cost-benefit ratio to erect seawalls for such a small village could never have been achieved since the cost of the seawalls would far exceed the replacement cost of threatened buildings. But a different standard is applied to subsistence villages.
Alternative #2. Remain on the island, but move houses to new locations as they become threatened by erosion.
Eighteen of the small houses of double-wide size were moved back from the shoreline after a 1997 storm. However, protective dunes along the island front have largely been lost in recent decades, and no matter where houses are moved on the island, they will be repeatedly threatened by storm flooding. Wherever the community would move on the island, it would very likely remain huddled behind large seawalls.
If either of the first two alternatives had been chosen as a path forward, it would be necessary to construct storm shelters for community members and to have firm island evacuation plans that could be dependably activated at very short notice (and presumably in very harsh weather).
Alternative #3. Move to Anchorage, Nome, or Kotzebue.
Of course, moving to a larger community would immediately halt the subsistence lifestyle. Community spokesperson Tony Weyiouanna pleads that "we have lost our language and we have lost our dance but we have not lost the subsistence nature of our society. This we must preserve."