Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
For years now, folks have searched desperately for the “fingerprints” of human climate change. These are things that are supposed to reveal how and where humans are affecting the climate. One of these fingerprints, which is alleged to be a sure and certain harbinger of the thermal end times, is the appearance of the long-awaited “First Climate Refugees”. The UN IPCC confidently forecast that there would be 50 million climate refugees by 2010 … we saw none. But before that there were supposed to be climate refugees from the coral atolls of Tuvalu … which turned out not to be sinking but instead expanding in area. So I guess they were the First Climate Refugees, and since it turned out there weren’t any climate refugees from Tuvalu, that makes the missing 50 million the Second First Climate Refugees.
Then the Third First Climate refugees were supposed to be in Bangladesh, but that turned out to be a recent squatter settlement on one of the many silt islands that appear and disappear in the river mouth there, once more nothing to do with climate.
In each case, of course, the people involved were widely touted as “the First Climate Refugees”, and like the first robins of spring, were predicted to be the first of many such occurrences … but they were never the first, because no refugees actually appeared. Plus there have been some more, I think the folks from Shishmaref Village in Alaska were something like the Fifth First Climate Refugees.
As a result, when a friend of mine said he was concerned about reports of a village in Alaska which was going to be lost and the people become refugees, I figured it was the old favorite in that regard, Shishmaref Village. But it turned out that he was talking about the latest poster child, the Sixth First Climate Refugees, a village called Newtok in Alaska. And I’ll get to Newtok, but first, I went back to see what I could find out about Shishmaref, and it’s hilarious. Shishmaref was said to be eroding away because of CO2 leading to less ice, leaving open water for storms, which erodes the foreshore … Figure 1 shows the damage we’re talking about.
Figure 1. Erosion damage along the foreshore at Shishmaref, Alaska. SOURCE: NOAA
Clearly, there are serious problems. At the time the Shishmaref news came out, a few years ago now, I figured “Meh, erosion, what’s new”? But it turns out I was wrong, there is something new. And what does NOAA say about the problems? Well, after a ritual obeisance to the CO2 alarmists, they get to the actual causes of the erosion shown above, saying:
Erosion at Shishmaref is somewhat unique along the islands because of its fetch exposure and high tidal prism, relatively intense infrastructure development during the 20th century, and because of multiple shoreline defense structures emplaced since the 1970s.
Erosion rates along the island front exceed (and are not comparable with) those along adjacent sectors. Erosion is occurring along the entire island chain, but it is exacerbated at Sarichef Island [where Shishmaref is located] in part because of the hydrographic impacts of hard armoring of a sandy shoreface and permafrost degradation that is accelerated by infrastructure.
So it turns out that the erosion is not from global climate change, or global anything. If it were it would affect the other islands. Instead, the problem stems from previous efforts to protect the foreshore that had unintended consequences. What they did was to “hard armor”, which means lay a solid layer of rocks on, a sandy shore. These early well-meaning attempts to affect the coast often had unintended consequences.
What was not appreciated back then is that a sandy beach, like the ones that they hard-armored, naturally evolves to take the form that dissipates the maximum energy of the waves. The shape of the beach changes to absorb and dissipate the energy in several forms. One is to have the water roll up and down the beach in as thin a sheet as possible given the physical constraints. This maximizes turbulence and thus energy loss. Another is the picking up and dropping of tons and tons of sand per hour. When each wave breaks, the top layer of sand is picked up and mixed throughout the turbulent white water. This constant lifting of tonnes of material helps absorb the wave energy.
But when you “hard armor” such a beach, you lose much of that. The village is being preferentially eroded because they hard armored a section of sandy shoreline. As usual with this kind of amateur meddling, you rarely get what you expect. In this case what happens is that energy that previously was absorbed by waves breaking on the sand is simply redirected elsewhere along the coast … which changes the direction and strength of the currents, and surprise, surprise, the seafront along town starts eroding. Because if the wave energy is not absorbed, it has to go somewhere. So it goes into pushing the water along the beach. And this, obviously, can cause problems down the coast.
So once again humans are indeed the cause … but it has nothing to do with CO2.
To make it worse, understandably when Shishmaref village was built (around 400 years ago), these folks weren’t concerned about melting the permafrost when they built their traditional homes. Modern practice if you are concerned about preserving permafrost is to build up off of the ground. But traditional houses in the north are built on or even in the ground, because it’s much warmer not to have wind whistling under your house. And for hundreds of years this wasn’t a problem.
At present, however, they are living in modern buildings of fairly recent vintage, not their traditional structures. Plus the population increase, with lots of new buildings. Plus clearing land for roads, which exposes it to the sun. Plus increases in house heating … and at the end of all of that, as a result of thousands and thousands of days of more and more fires warming more and more houses, the permafrost is diminished, and the erosion is increased.
But but to blame CO2 as the culprit for that, as was shouted from the rooftops by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club? Sorry. If that were the case the whole coastline would be eroding. It isn’t. We know why the village shore is eroding, and it’s local actions, not global actions, that are the culprit..
Now, I said that what I found out about Shishmaref was very funny, and I’ll get to that in a bit. But first, I had to go research the village my friend was referring to, the latest poster child for Arctic climate change victims, the Sixth First Climate Refugees. A google search for “climate victims Alaska” brings up dozens and dozens of articles about the new one, talking about how because of climate change the sea is causing erosion in Newtok Village in Alaska. One article starts off “Newtok is losing ground to the sea at a dangerous rate.” It’s a regular quack-fest of folks that are terribly and visibly concerned about this latest effect of CO2 …
But when I go to Google Earth, I find that the dang village is not even on the ocean. Not only that, but it’s near the outer edge of the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta. This is one of the largest river deltas on the planet. Between them, the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers drain a huge amount of Alaska. And as is common with northern rivers, they are loaded with sediment. Add in hundreds of thousands of years, and you get Figure 2 …
Figure 2. The amazing expanse of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. Originally, everything inside of the red line was once ocean. At that time the two rivers flowed into a bay, but over the millennia, silt has been deposited over a huge area. The village of Newtok is indicated by the red “A” marker, just off of the river that drains the large lake.
First comment. Within the red line, most of the land is less than 2 metres (6′) above sea level. Second comment. The current positions of the rivers are not the historical positions. All over the delta there are cutoff oxbow lakes and relict channels showing where at some time in the past some branch of one of the two rivers flowed to the sea. Figure 3 should give you a sense of what the turf looks like …
And here is a photo of the village itself, along with the small drainage channel on the north side:
Next, here is a more detailed map of the village location, showing the drainage channel to the north and the main channel to the south …
Note all of the cutoff sections of previous river channels that are now lakes. So Newtok is a town a few feet above the water, built on silt, on a small drainage channel that feeds into a larger drainage channel that connects a delta lake to the ocean (see Figure 2). You can see the larger channel at the lower left of Figure 5. Next, Figure 6 shows the exact same view, but in the satellite layer of Google Maps. Check out the difference, obviously the map layer is older, as the newer satellite photo shows extensive changes:
Note the change in the main channel. Just like every other meandering channel on the planet, it has eaten away on the outside of the bend. That’s what rivers do. They eat away at the outside of bends, and the silt is deposited on the inside of the bend. It’s totally predictable. Compare the inside of the bend with Figure 5. See how it has built out?
So let me recap the bidding. The village of Newtok is built on top of a couple of feet of silt, in a relict channel towards the seaward side of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. It is surrounded by cutoff oxbow lakes testifying to the constantly meandering, shifting nature common to all river deltas. Like all river deltas, we can assume that the ground is subsiding, it’s what they all do. And in such conditions, both erosion and deposition are constant processes. At any time, any given location is either gaining or losing soil.
Not only that, but the village is built on the outside of a bend in the main channel, a location which can be confidently predicted to be eroded away sooner or later simply because that’s the unchanging ancient nature of river deltas.
… and they claim this erosion is a total surprise, and that CO2 is to blame?
It’s a village built on a thin layer of geologically recent and only lightly consolidated silt. The silt is slowly compacting and sinking. And to top it off, it’s on the outside of a bend in an active channel near the outer (newer) edge of a huge river delta. It’s a couple feet of freshly created land in a location we know will erode, what the heck do they expect? Long-term stasis?
So that’s the story of how the Sixth First Climate Refugees might have to move their village, but like all the rest, there are no climate refugees. We can now await the announcement of the Seventh …
Now, I said I’d finish the Shishmaref story. Here’s the funny part that I hadn’t understood. I’ve seen lots of small rocky islands when commercial fishing in the Bering Sea, some not all that far from Newtok actually. So that’s how I imagined Shishmaref. But to my surprise, it’s not like that at all. Here’s the large-coverage map.
Next, here’s a closer view.
When I saw that map, my jaw dropped to the floor, and I flat busted out laughing. Shishmaref is not on a rocky island at all. It’s on a barrier island! These guys have a village on a barrier island, and they’re surprised that the geography is changing? Barrier islands are notorious for that. They should go talk to the folks from New Jersey or the Carolinas about the joys of building on barrier islands. For millions of years, large storms have regularly changed the world’s barrier islands by cutting new passes right straight through some part of a barrier island chain.
Here’s a more detailed map of Shishmaref, and it just gets worse:
Not only is the village on a barrier island. It’s on the most vulnerable island, the one with the main inflow-outflow channels on either side. This is a common feature of barrier island chains, that there will be a short island with a channel on each side opposite an inlet, as in this case. The two channels allow storm and tide and melt water to circulate in and out of the inlet.
Unfortunately, this also means that these are the highest current locations along the coast, the channels adjacent to the island where tidal and storm and melt waters have to pass through, and thus the most subject to erosion.
Anyhow, that was the funny thing I found out that I hadn’t known—that the whole Shishmaref furor is about erosion on a vulnerable barrier island which is routinely battered by fierce storms … I’d be shocked if the island didn’t erode and change and alter its shape.
But ascribing that to CO2? That dog won’t hunt …
All the best to you all,