Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Well, my heart fell when I saw the recent BBC article which proudly proclaimed that the people of Kivalina were slated to become “America’s first climate change refugees” …
Figure 1. The Alaskan native village of Kivalina. SOURCE: BBC
My heart fell for three reasons. First, because once again we are being presented with natural, expected changes in a shifting, unstable barrier island that are falsely claimed to be the result of “climate change”. Folks, barrier islands are just a pile of sand, and they erode, change, and alter their shape with every change in the ocean that built them. As the residents of the barrier islands of the US East Coast regularly discover (although apparently to their infinitely renewed shock and never-lessening total surprise and outrage), when a storm wanders through their neighborhood, the ocean is more than happy to totally reshape any barrier island at any time. The ocean thinks nothing of cutting a barrier island in two, it’s an everyday occurrence around the planet. And the ocean particularly messes with a location like Kivalina, which as you can see from the article is right at the main channel … where all of the water goes through with every tide, where runoff from a huge storm has to force its way out to the ocean, and where as a result the erosive forces are both the strongest and the most unpredictable.
Second, I was bummed that they’d built such a joke of a seawall, because as the photo clearly shows and the article mentions, the seawall there is having unexpected effects which are not all beneficial. As is common with such amateur attempts to tame the sea, it’s building up sand at one end and being eaten away and undermined at the other. No surprise there, except that this was the Army Corps of Engineers and it was built in 2008 … as I discuss below, they are way, way behind the times if that’s their idea of how to protect Kivalina.
The third reason I was saddened was that I immediately suspected the fine hand of some melanin-deficient historical BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) official in the original location of the village. The BIA has been the cause of huge grief for just about all of the people under its jurisdiction, so why not Kivalina? Plus, I doubted greatly that any group of nomadic northern hunters would choose to live right there, they’re generally much smarter than that.
When you look at the location of Kivalina on Google Earth, you have to say, what on earth were the BIA thinking? Never mind, they weren’t.
Figure 2. Overview of the entire island on which Kivalina is located, in the winter, with ice on the ocean. Note the sediment being discharged out the channel by Kivalina, and the areas of reduced ice outside both channels through the barrier islands.
In my previous post on this subject, aptly yclept the “Sixth First Climate Refugees“, it was pointed out that the Fifth First Climate Refugees in the Alaskan village of Shishmaref was located on a barrier island because they’d been moved to that spot by the US government. Years ago, there was a big push to stop the traditional residents from being nomads. Nomads drive governments nuts, you can’t control them. So the government very foolishly insisted the people settle in a terrible location, the barrier island where the town of Shishmaref is now located. Now, nomadic traditional people are far from stupid. You can assume that they were all too familiar with the fragility and changeability of barrier islands, because they only put temporary hunting camps on such islands, and wisely lived on the mainland behind the protection that such barrier islands until they were forced offshore. And the same forced resettlement was the story for the Sixth First Climate Refugees, those in Newtok, Alaska.
So when I saw the picture above, my first thought was, “BIA strikes again”. And sadly, my guess was right. The NANA, the Alaska Native Corporation of the northern peoples, tells the story of Kivalina on their web site:
For more than 1,500 years, the barrier reef where Kivalina is located has been a stopping-off place for seasonal travelers between the Arctic coastal areas and the Kotzebue Sound region. In 2009 human remains and artifacts were discovered near Kivalina representing the Ipiutak, a non-whaling Eskimo culture that was present in northwestern Alaska from the 2nd to 6th centuries A.D. The Ipiutak people inhabited the coastal region only in the spring and summer months, moving inland for the rest of the year.
According to elder knowledge, the original permanent settlement known as Kivalina was located on the coast of the mainland, a few miles north of Kivalliik Channel. The people of Kivalina, like the Ipiutak before them, utilized the barrier reef only as seasonal hunting grounds, making camp there in warm-weather months.The first recorded history of Kivalina occurred in 1847 when a Russian naval officer mistook a seasonal hunting camp at the north end of Kivalina Lagoon—a few miles from the location of modern-day Kivalina—as a permanent settlement, the name of which he logged as “Kivualinagmut.”
From 1896 to 1902, United States federal programs transported reindeer to the Kivalina area and funded the training of some residents as reindeer herders.
Kivalina was relocated to its current location in 1905 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs repeated the error of the Russian naval officer by mistaking a seasonal camp on the barrier reef for a year-round village. The BIA in short order built a school on the southern tip of the island and declared that any inhabitants of the barrier reef and surrounding region who did not enroll their children would be imprisoned. This order compelled the people of the original Kivalina as well as communities inland and north and south along the coast to migrate to the Kivalina created by the BIA.
Like I figured, the locals were far too smart to build permanent villages on a barrier island. They “utilized the barrier reef only as seasonal hunting grounds“. So the village is in such a dangerous, shifting location because white guys with guns threatened to throw anyone who didn’t move there in jail … charming.
Now, in response to the predictable erosion and change in the barrier island, the inhabitants of Kivalina sued ExxonMobil, claiming that CO2 was the cause of their problems … and wisely the Supreme Court threw it out.
The fact remains, however, that just as with Shishmaref and Newtok, the cause of the problems are human actions, although they have nothing to do with CO2. All three villages are in ridiculously unstable, shifting, dangerous locations for the same reason—they were rounded up by the BIA and forced to settle there.
So if I came from one of those villages, I’d want to bring suit as well … but I’d want to bring suit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Of course, I assume that in the usual Catch-22 fashion, you can’t do that, because the Feds are immune to most suits … grrr. I can see why the Kivalina folks are upset. I’m just afraid that they don’t have a lot of choices, and as a result they sued the wrong folks.
There is one possibility, however. Modern coastal engineering has progressed since the “just build a vertical wall” style of attempted protection represented in the picture above. The modern practice is to use cement-filled tubes of geotextile fabric that run perpendicular to the beach along the bottom of the ocean. These don’t attempt to stop the ocean, like the vertical seawall pictured above. Here’s the challenge.
Anyone wanting to change the shape of a barrier island first needs to realize that the lovely sand beach is not a solid object. It is a river of sand. Sand is constantly being picked up and moved by each and every wave, either up or down the beach. Now, if you put in a vertical seawall like the one shown in the picture, when the waves hit the seawall their energy is not dispersed. Instead, the energy is reflected down the beach. You can see the outcome in Figure 1.
First, note that in the more distant section of the island just beyond the far end of the seawall, the beach is much wider than after the start of the seawall. For the reason, look at the direction that the waves are striking. The problem is that instead of the wave energy being absorbed by the beach, it is being reflected to run parallel the seawall as a long-shore current. You can see how over time this long-shore current has scoured away the sand from the far end of the seawall, and it has deposited it at the near end.
And eventually, the seawall will be undercut entirely, because a vertical seawall also directs some of the wave energy straight downwards at the base of the wall. This scours the sand out directly under the seawall itself, and will eventually lead to its destruction and collapse. The people up in Shishmaref the Fourth First Climate Refugees, have exactly the same problem. There, a poorly designed seawall has shifted the wave energy to where it’s now eating away the town itself. Seawalls just move the wave energy parallel to the coast.
With the modern practice, however, no such vertical seawall is built. Here’s a picture of such an installation, just after construction:
Note that instead of going along the shoreline, the concrete-filled tubes go perpendicular to the beach, straight offshore into deeper water. Now, remember that a beach is essentially a river of sand. Here’s the important fact—the amount of sand that can be picked up by the water depends entirely on the speed of the water. Fast-moving water can carry more sand than slow-moving water.
So as a corollary of that, if you can slow down the water that is moving the river of sand along parallel to the shore, it will drop its load of sand, and your beach will fill in and stabilize further out into the ocean. And that’s what the tubes full of concrete do. They don’t try to stop the water. They just slow it down a bit, as though the water stubs its toe whenever it goes over one of these tubes. When it slows, it drops its sand, filling in the area in between parallel tubes. A year or so after the picture above was taken, the concrete-filled tubes you see were totally buried in the sand, and the beach extended out well beyond the point of land. Counter-intuitive in a way, because there’s no seawall parallel to the coast at all … but it works like a champ, because it works with nature, not against it like a vertical seawall tries to do. Here’s a before-and-after picture of a larger project:
Figure 4. The waves were undercutting the bluffs, threatening the highway running along the top of the cliff. The system shown in Figure 3 was used all along the coastline. You can see parts of a couple of the concrete-filled tubes perpendicular to the land near the foot of the bluff at the lower right in the second picture.
So while the existing seawall is failing, that doesn’t mean that the folks in Kivalina are out of options. Here’s the link to a main company doing this type of installation, Holmberg Technologies. The pictures above are from their website. (I have no connection with them.) If I lived in Kivalina, I’d get all my ducks in a row tomorrow, and I’d have Holmberg’s on the phone tomorrow. I’d pitch it as Holmberg’s chance to a) get some great publicity, and b) to help to right a historical wrong. The Native Corporation might even be such that Holmberg could get a tax write-off for any contributions, I’d investigate that first. Then I’d call Holmbergs, and offer that the village would provide all the labor, and pay for the concrete, if Holmberg would do the coastal engineering and provide the special geotextile fabric tubes and oversee the project. I’d offer to put their name up all over the project, and mention them prominently in all of the publicity. Can’t hurt to ask … and if they say yes, then I’d hit up the nearest concrete company to provide the concrete as a donation for the same reason. Hey, why not? Could happen. You often don’t get what you ask for, I know that … but it’s rare to get something you don’t ask for, so it’s sure worth a few phone calls. Even if Holmberg says no, I’d get an estimate from them and a plan, asking them for their best possible rates for the reasons stated above, publicity and righting a wrong. Then I’d go out and raise the money, somewhere, somehow, to hire them to do it. See if Crowley Marine or another tug company might contribute towards barging the materials there. Looking at the beach in Figure 4, you can see that by Holmberg’s standards Kivalina would be a fairly small project … just in the middle of nowhere.
Now, the best option is still for the village to move, because no matter what they do to their island, it’s still just a bog-standard barrier island, which means a shifting pile of sand in an incredibly powerful ocean. There are no guarantees in that situation, even with the best coastal engineering advice on the planet.
For example, note in Figure 2 that at the ends of the island where Kivalina is located, both of the channels are located directly across from the main river outlet on the mainland. This is a common situation with barrier islands. Gaps in the islands across from the main rivers allow floodwaters running of the land to go straight out to sea.
Now, look at all of the abandoned channels in the mainland … and consider that in the past those have been the main channel, and could be again. Not “if” but when that happens, it will likely cut through or greatly change Kivalina’s island. So staying is problematic in the long term.
But given the cost of moving the village all at once, If I Ran The Zoo I think what I’d do is first hustle up the donations and the $ to install the new concrete-filled tubes to build up the protective beach on the seaside of Kivalina. That will buy some time. Then I’d pick a good spot for the village on the mainland, maybe even the spot of the ancestral village if that’s a possibility. I’d do all of the necessary local ceremonies to bless the choice, get everyone involved so it’s a true community grassroots decision. I’d divide it up into lots based on what the locals say is fair, plenty of different ways to do that, and offer them to the villagers to move to. There’s got to be better land owned by the tribe or controlled by the BIA somewhere in the area. And that way, over the next decades the population could slowly shift to their new homes, without an immediate costs of millions of dollars.
But all in all, there’s no real good answer. Tragically, it’s more of the usual kind of pain and suffering that trails the actions of the BIA like a bad smell. They have been highly corrupt and totally inefficient since their inception. They’ve screwed their “wards” out of millions and millions of dollars. They’ve taken children from their parents and forced them to stop speaking their native languages. The list of their misdeeds is very long, broken treaties and false promises and government obfuscation and embezzlement at each new page in their sordid history. Every Indian or Eskimo I’ve ever known has said that the Bureau of Indian Affairs is nothing but a nest of crooks and thieves, and in my reading I’ve never found anything to contradict that in the slightest …
Anyhow, that’s the story of the Seventh First Climate Refugees. Turns out that they aren’t climate refugees at all, they are BIA refugees. Just another in a long parade of Alaskan and other tribes who have been shafted by the BIA, forcibly settled in a totally unsuitable location, and as a result left with few good options.
Best regards to all, and as a melanin-deficient person myself, other than my poor ideas about fixing the situation, all I have to offer to the good people of Kivalina are my apologies for the historical actions of people who looked like me, and my sincere wishes for success.
PS—BBC, your climate reporting is pathetic. Doesn’t anyone there think to check up on some dewy-eyed reporter gushing on about the tragic fate of the latest batch of pseudo-refugees? Missing the facts in this story would have been understandable a decade ago, but in 2013, you guys are a running joke. Something on the order of …
How many BBC climate editors does it take to change a light bulb?
No one knows, it appears their lights went out years ago and haven’t been replaced since …