Stevens says erosion may force villages to move

Posted: Tuesday, May 22, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Large sums of money might be needed to deal with rising water and erosion at several Arctic villages, including the possibility of moving the villages inland, U.S. Sen. Ted. Stevens said Monday.

Stevens, R-Alaska, said he doesn't believe the problems are due to global warming. Rather, he said he believes it is a natural shifting of ocean heat north into the Arctic, affecting both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of North America.

He said threatened villages include Barrow, Kivalina, Shishmaref and Point Hope.

''We face the need to get substantial federal money to move them,'' Stevens said in a wide-ranging press conference Monday in Anchorage.

Next weekend, a group including NASA chief Dan Goldin will go to Barrow and possibly other villages to talk about moving them back from the sea. NASA will monitor temperature changes from space, Stevens said.

In Shishmaref, an Eskimo village of fewer than 600 residents along the Chukchi Sea just beneath the Arctic Circle, beach erosion is causing serious worry for residents. The village sits on a skinny barrier island vulnerable to fall storms.

The Chukchi is now only about 30 feet away from five tanks that hold a total of 85,000 gallons of gasoline and stove oil. Years ago, he said, the water was 300 or 400 feet out, said Robert Iyatunguk, who heads the village's Erosion Coalition. The coalition is a joint effort of the city and local Native organizations to respond to the problem.

There are other threats. The village tannery, where seal skins and reindeer hides are worked, is only 20 feet or so off the beach, he said. The sea is gobbling great chunks of earth out of the bluffs on the west end of the village. And storm-driven water could chew into the airport too.

The Erosion Coalition is lobbying the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies for millions of dollars in projects to fortify the coast.

Barrow, a town of about 4,500 on the very top of Alaska, also is looking to the Corps for erosion cures.

As with Shishmaref and other villages, the erosion is nothing new. Houses have been moved in some villages and riprap placed as coastal armor against the sea.

Yet the problems are relentless, and a new phenomenon is becoming commonplace: thinning ice that no longer seals each winter against the beach. In fact, Stevens noted that the fabled Northwest Passage will be open for the third summer in a row.

''It's not a theory anymore but a fact that the sea ice is not as thick as it used to be, and so therefore there's more open water, and that's historically what's sheltered Barrow beaches, this huge sheet of ice out there calming the ocean,'' said Barrow Mayor Jim Vorderstrasse.

Among the threats to Barrow: The town's sewage lagoon is only about 100 yards from the Arctic Ocean and in jeopardy of being breached, Vorderstrasse said.

''Conventional wisdom is that you can't fight Mother Nature, so you're better off moving back,'' he said. But that's hardly simple. For example, the town's ''utilidor,'' an underground tunnel that carries water and sewage lines and pump stations, is too close to the beach in some places, but moving it would be extremely expensive.

Steve Boardman, deputy district engineer for project management with the Corps in Anchorage, said his agency has worked to keep Stevens informed.

In some cases, simply moving some or all of a village would be smarter, in dollar terms, than trying to fight back the water, Boardman said. But it would still cost millions.

Stevens said that because the erosion is happening slowly, it wouldn't qualify for disaster funds. Money would have to come from a special appropriation, he said.

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