and some of his whalebone carvings looked down at us from a high shelf.
Weyiouanna searched the kitchen for the right stone for his ulu sharpening, then told me that, although he'd given up the transportation planning job and his lead role with the coalition for a part-time position as the village's grant writer, he couldn't turn his back on the dire situation, the future of his family and community. It was just very frustrating to have so many entities involved in such a confusing and uncoordinated way and so little progress, and now the media had lost interest and was on to other, fresher stories. Senator Ted Stevens, so successful at delivering federal funds to Alaska's villages, had lost his seat, and who knew how that was going to play out?
Now, at Tin Creek we disembarked onto tundra lit with the feathery heads of cotton grass, and Fannie and her niece Brenda set out with berry buckets. Weyiouanna and I started uphill so I could get a better view and sense of the country that might be Shishmaref's new home. The tundra growth was wound tight to the ground and into hilly tussocks, intertwined with grasses, willows, Labrador tea, lichens, gemlike blueberries we paused to pick and eat, and an occasional single gold aqpik berry. Despite the advancing season, the landscape was still green, with leaves just beginning to suggest the yellows and reds of autumn. We staggered over the dry, prickly tussocks as they twisted and toppled under our feet, and I thought of what a biologist in Nome had told me—that the tundra surface was drier than usual, not for a lack of rain but because, as the "active layer" of ground deepened over thawing permafrost, there was more soil for the moisture to soak into.
"What's that dark thing?" Weyiouanna pointed toward the creek and a patch of willows, upstream from the boat and from where Fannie and Brenda were leaning over their yellow berry buckets.
I raised my binoculars. A caribou with smallish antlers was staring back at us.
Weyiouanna took his own look. "This is a closed area," he said, as though he wished it were not and he could go get the rifle from the boat. Caribou are a major subsistence food for his family and most others in Shishmaref. While bearded seals, the village's main source of protein, are threatened by the loss of sea ice, caribou, too, are having a time of it as snow conditions and vegetation change with the climate. Here on the Seward Peninsula, the now treeless expanse of tundra is expected to transition into spruce and deciduous forest within the next hundred years. A forested landscape would no longer support certain species, like caribou. Winter icing, elsewhere in the north, has already collapsed some caribou populations by blocking their access to nutritious lichens, and warming is also increasing the numbers of biting insects that drive caribou to exhaustion.
As we continued to wind our way uphill, we began to see over the land beyond the creek, to the water that was the lagoon and then across the twelve miles that separated us from the chain of barrier islands and Shishmaref. The islands out there are true barrier islands, long and narrow and almost continuous, with a few breaks that open to the Chukchi Sea. They're made out of sand and, like all barrier islands, are hugely dynamic. That is, they're constantly being reworked by wind and waves. Although the mechanics of barrier island origins are still debated, their development is linked to the end of the last ice age; when the glaciers stopped melting and the rapid rise in sea level slowed, the islands formed. Scientists note that rising sea level causes existing islands to move shoreward, typically by a process called "rolling over," when waves top an island and carry sand to the lagoon side.
The mirage effect over the water caused the islands to lift in the distance, and the village of Shishmaref looked like a shimmering line of tiny, boxy shapes, minimalist in such a massive landscape. What a crazy place to build a community, was all I could think. Who in his right mind would ever put six hundred people and all their modern infrastructure on a sandbar?
No one, of course, had made any such intentional choice. One thing led to another, until we have today's situation. Although Shishmaref's people claim four thousand years of habitation on the island (known as Kigiktaq—"island"—before explorer Otto von Kotzebue, working for the Russians, came along in 1816 and began renaming places), that habitation was nomadic and seasonal. Seals and other marine resources were, then as now, a mainstay of the Inupiaq food supply and culture. Eventually, because of the natural harbor in the shelter of the island, Shishmaref became a supply center for gold mining activities. A post office was established in 1901. Then came the school, the Lutheran church (on the highest ground in the center of town), the electrical system and fuel to run it, the government housing, and on, and on. Like so many other coastal places in Alaska, the location made it easily accessed by barges for unloading all the construction materials and fuel and now packaged foods and TV sets that barges bring.
And always, there was erosion—"natural," if you will, and increasingly related to the reduction in sea ice and the thaw of permafrost. For more than three decades now, as more and more infrastructure was piled onto the sand, there's been talk of moving. In 1974, the estimated cost of relocating the community to the mainland was $1 million. In 2006, an Army Corps of Engineers study set the estimated cost of moving at $179 million.3 Anyone can do the math; for 142 households, that's more than $1 million each. Who's going to pay?
The alternatives are scarcely less costly. The Corps estimated that the village could be "colocated" to either Nome or Kotzebue for about $93 million. To stay in place on the island but shield it with seawalls, at least for a while—$109 million.
Weyiouanna and I sat on the hummocky tundra while he pointed in one direction and another. We were somewhere on the grounds of the potential relocation site, the one selected by the community after a reconnaissance study had evaluated such things as space requirements, room for growth, and access to the sea. Over the hill lay Goose Creek, an important area for waterfowl hunting and the collection of greens, and beyond that rose the Serpentine Mountains, above the river where the Weyiouannas and other Shishmaref families have their hunting and berry-picking camps.
Since spring, a road study had been under way, drilling into the tundra to test the underlying materials and ice depth to determine the best route as well as likely development costs. The road—to cover about twenty miles—would go from the edge of Shishmaref Inlet across village corporation land and part of the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (perhaps the least visited unit of our national park system) to the granitic Ear Mountain, from which rock and gravel needed for construction would be mined. The village site would lie partway along the route, approximately where we sat. Just the exploratory work on the road was costing some millions in federal highway funds, and the road itself was expected to be in excess of $30 million. Other studies were clocking wind speeds and directions at a potential airport location, to determine where a runway might be built and whether a cross-runway would also be necessary.
The tundra, the sky, the skipping-by small birds and the flocks of ducks over the river, the deep quiet, the sweet smell of the crushed plants beneath us—it was hard for me to sit in such a place and to anticipate a construction zone or a village. My mind stuck on the current village, with its poorly built government houses, four-wheelers parked by the post office, children playing, meat and fish hanging, smell of sewage, and steady drone of the power plant. But the new village would be built with a plan, and that plan would include new technologies and concepts of sustainability.
Weyiouanna talked, and it was clear he held a particular, perhaps even utopian, vision in his own mind. In the new village, houses would not be crowded on top of one another, and they would be built for energy efficiency. They would have plumbing and pump-out sewage tanks instead of water barrels and "honey buckets." There would still be a need for fuel tanks and fuel, but at least some of the electricity would come from wind or other renewable sources. There would be a new clinic and new school building. The village, in a safe and permanent place, might become a service hub for the rest of the region, might build an economy from that. Most of all, in Weyiouanna's vision, Shishmaref's people would be together and would still have access to their traditional lands and resources. Without the constant worry of living on a disappearing island, and with room to grow, young people and their families would stay in the community, would embrace and carry on the culture. Those who had left would want to return.
"I want us to use as little fossil fuel as we can," Weyiouanna said. He had told me earlier that both gasoline and fuel oil were presently priced, in Shishmaref, at $7.50 per gallon. "Subsistence is an important part of our lives—we don't have an economic base. It's important that, in our planning, we ask, 'How can we be more efficient in using resources?'" The ongoing studies were moving the project forward, however slowly. They would help identify the best, cheapest, most sustainable way to do the job. As the village grant writer, Weyiouanna was doing what he could, including applying for funds for small-scale projects, some wind and solar.
Below us, Fannie and Brenda were still picking, just feet apart, and I imagined they were talking together, too, the way that women do, everywhere, when working with their hands. Beyond them, sunlight glinted from the boat's windshield.
Shishmaref can show the way, Weyiouanna stressed. Shishmaref's relocation should be seen as a demonstration project to show how communities and government agencies can work together to both respect the cultures and needs of the relocating communities and be cost-effective. He didn't say it, but Weyiouanna's implication was clear: Shishmaref's climate-induced need to move was only among the first of the flood to come.
Could a new Shishmaref actually be a model of energy efficiency and renewable energy? The idea was not so far-fetched. On my way to Shishmaref I'd stopped in Nome, which was making a name for itself in renewables and already planning to export technology to the surrounding villages. On Banner Hill, just north of town, a private venture of the regional Bering Straits Native Corporation and the local Sitnasuak Native Corporation has installed the largest wind farm in Alaska. Banner Wind's eighteen wind generators are capable of feeding nine hundred kilowatts of power into Nome's electric grid, replacing about a quarter of the expensive diesel generation that was otherwise the source of the community's electricity. While the capital cost of the wind project—$5.5 million—was significant, the Native corporations were taking advantage of tax incentives and the sale of carbon offsets, otherwise known as "green tags."4 The wind power was sold to the local utility for less than the cost of their diesel production, allowing the utility to lower costs to consumers. Banner Wind expected to make a profit, which would flow to shareholders, the Native people of the region. And half the profits were committed to the development of renewable energy projects in the villages around Nome.
All was not perfect with this plan, however. The farm had begun operating in early 2009 but soon ran into problems with high winds and icing. When I drove out to Banner Hill, the turbines were not moving. They looked like a work of environmental art, the eighteen of them strung along the ridge, grouped and spread out, blades frozen into contrasting, aesthetically pleasing positions. They'd been shut down for three months, since May, and I'd read in the paper that the wait was for the manufacture of new parts.
The day of my visit was warm and sunny, with just a breath of wind, and I was lucky to find Bob Hafner, the local person in charge of the project's installation and maintenance, at the foot of a tower. Hafner, a very fit-looking guy in a white Harley-Davidson T-shirt, was happy to talk to me while his assistant climbed the hundred-
Was this article helpful?