Kivalina: A Case Study
How Media & Politics Mangle Objective Climate Science!
The town of Kivalina bordered by the Chukchi Sea to the left and a lagoon to the right. The lagoon side experiences the most erosion.
What appears to be more failed alarmist predictions, the BBC’s 2013 headlines read Alaskan Village Set to Disappear Under Water in A Decade. “Gone, forever. Remembered - if at all - as the birthplace of America's first climate change refugees." The assumed cause? “Temperature records show the Arctic region of Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Retreating ice, slowly rising sea levels and increased coastal erosion have left three Inuit settlements facing imminent destruction.” Similarly, in 2017 Huffington Post wrote, “It is disappearing. Fast. As one of the most apparent and shocking examples of coastal erosion, Kivalina could be uninhabitable by 2025, all thanks to climate change.” The Guardian and Mother Jones wrote, “31 Alaskan communities face “imminent” existential threats from coastline erosion, flooding and other consequences of temperatures that are rising twice as quickly in the state as the global average.” Sadly, media outlets and politicians ignored the objective science, but the truth is still out there.
The real problem for Alaska’s native communities has been past governments’ mis-guided attempts to enforce “permanence” in an everchanging landscape. The “settlements facing imminent destruction” are not places native people had freely chosen to settle. With their survival on the line, indigenous people were intimately aware of Alaska’s everchanging environments long before the theory of CO2-induced-climate-change would be proposed. And so, they chose to be semi-nomadic. Kivalina was a good seasonal hunting camp, but never hosted a permanent settlement. Nonetheless the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) made it permanent in 1905.
As reported by REVEAL, “The Inupiaq used to spend summers in tents along Kivalina's beach. When winter set in, they'd move inland to hunt caribou for food. They were semi-nomadic but in 1905 the federal government built a school on the island. Parents were threatened with jail time or losing their kids all together if they didn't send them to school.” Just 6 years after its creation, Kivalina’s schoolteacher Clinton Replogle warned in 1911, Kivalina should be relocated due to flooding from ocean storms.
Consider the way most barrier islands get formed. Kivalina island was formed from a loosely consolidated sand bar and maintained by ample sediments supplied by local rivers. Ocean waves push eroded sand and gravel back towards the coast where it accumulates into a sand bar in shallow waters. On the sand bar’s landward side, river currents erode the sand, maintaining a lagoon and the islands’ narrow width. Islands are then formed where miles-long sand bars are cut into pieces by coastal rivers seeking an outlet to the ocean. The Singauk Entrance (see below) is where the Wulik River flows past Kivalina into the Chukchi Sea and it exemplifies the island’s unstable dynamics. Some years Singauk Entrance is blocked by sand piled up by winter storm waves, but then re-opened later by river erosion. As Tribal Administrator Millie Hawley recently stated, Kivalina was always eroding. We’re on a small spit of land that has diminished in size over the last century.”
Barrier island formation also requires a shallow-sloping ocean floor that minimizes the irretrievable loss of sand that might wash away into the deeper ocean. However, such shallow ocean floors also amplify wave heights of approaching storms. A barrier island’s ultimate height is determined by the amount of sediments dropped from a storm’s overtopping waves. Kivalina’s highest point is a mere 13 feet, and decades ago the high tide mark came within 1 to 2 feet of the town. But the storms of late summer and ice-free fall can bring waves 10 feet or higher. No wonder the threat of storm surge flooding was so clear to Clinton Replogle. Indeed, geological surveys have now revealed flooding from waves that had overtopped Kivalina happened at least twice between1905 and 1990.
The island’s sands don’t hold fresh water. So, the town’s water tank must be fed by a 3-mile-long fire hose stretching from the Wulik River. Kivalina’s sewage system consists of individual "honey-buckets" emptied by each resident into two specified "bunkers". Poor sanitation and overcrowding have always been a problem, causing an extremely high instance of communicable diseases in the City of Kivalina has. In 2021 it suffered a large outbreak of COVID.
With negatives outweighing positives and an annual threat of destruction by storm surge, Inupiaq residents initiated a study in 1994 to relocate, despite a decade of few large storms. Using photographs dating back to 1952, the study surprisingly found no conclusive proof of any erosion occurring on the ocean-side of the island. However, the study did reveal substantial erosion on Kivalina’s lagoon side by the Wulik and Kivalina Rivers. Still the researchers warned, “Although there is very limited information available, it is our opinion that it is only a matter of time until the right combination of natural events occur which will result in over-topping of the City. When this occurs, the wave action will result in damage to the structures and if ice is associated with the storm surge the consequences could be disastrous.”
Still Kivalina’s population grew from 188 to over 400 since 1970. Despite residents voting 5 times to relocate to safety in the past 3 decades, an airplane runway that brings needed supplies and a medical clinic operated by the non-profit Maniilaq Association remained an attraction. Additionally, funding for relocation was scant with an economy based primarily on subsistence harvesting of seals, walrus, whale, salmon, and caribou. Furthermore, state and federal governments offered little support. So, when government reports began blaming global warming, in 2011 the residents opted to file a lawsuit against the major oil companies arguing “Kivalina must be relocated due to global warming” and sought funds to cover an estimated cost of $95 million to $400 million. Although their lawsuit failed, Kivalina’s “David vs Goliath” lawsuit was championed by proponents of catastrophic climate change and opponents of Big Oil, thrusting previously little-cared-about Kivalina into the limelight as an icon of the “climate crisis”.
Ignored has been the forcing of the Inupiaq into a permanent settlement on a dynamically changing barrier island. That was the real problem. Similarly, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reprogrammed the seasonally migrating Yupik into residents of a permanent community. Worse, the BIA chose a Ninglick River location in the Yukon Delta to build their school and create the permanent village of Newtok. But river deltas are notoriously unstable (as New Orleans has painfully realized throughout its 300-year existence). Newtok’s school was built in 1958, but the BIA’s environmental ignorance was again quickly exposed. By the 1980s the US Army Corp of Engineers was spending over a million dollars trying to prevent natural river erosion from destroying Newtok. Just 26 years after its creation, Newtok residents commissioned its first study for re-locating. Costs of Newtok’s ongoing relocation will exceed $100 million. Nonetheless, it’s remained easier to blame climate change, natural or human caused, to cover for the government’s badly conceived “forced permanence”.
In 2005 the Guardian was hyping the United Nation’s outrageous failed prediction there would be “50 million environmental refugees by the end of the decade” and the plight of Kivalina was an opportunity to put a face on those imaginary “climate refugees”. If you tell a big lie often enough, the naïve will uncritically believe it. So like-minded media outlets formed “Climate Desk” to push more alarmism (affiliates are shown below). By 2019, the Guardian again amplified the climate hype telling their journalists to no longer refer to weather events as global warming or climate change. Instead, they should weaponize harsh weather as a “climate crisis” or “climate emergency”. Now an unholy alliance (between “if it bleeds it leads” media outlets, scientists from the “chicken little school of thought”, and politicians who use every crisis to gain political control) repeats daily that we are all threatened by an “existential climate crisis.” But for those of us who study the actual science, there is an army of objective climate scientists providing evidence that makes us doubt such climate fearmongering.
In 2013, Climate Desk’s Weather Channel wrote The Sea is Slowly Swallowing Alaskan Towns stating” the cost of climate change is becoming a painful reality for towns in coastal Alaska, as rising sea levels overtake acres and acres of once-dry land. The threat appears immediate in Kivalina.” But objective science shows otherwise. As determined in the peer-reviewed paper Arctic Ocean Sea Level Record from the Complete Radar Altimetry Era: 1991–2018 , sea level across the Arctic varies because winds remove water from one region and pile it up in another. Along the Siberian-Russian coasts and the southern Chukchi Sea bordering Kivalina (green arrow), sea level has not risen, despite sea level strongly rising along the Beaufort Sea (red).
Furthermore, it’s summer winds that push warmer Pacific waters through the Bering Strait and initiates sea ice melt and the warming in the frozen Chukchi Sea. During the last few decades, the amount of warm Pacific water passing through the Bering Strait has nearly doubled, melting more sea ice and expanding open waters. Nearly half of that intruding ocean heat gets released to the atmosphere, raising air temperatures. Although more open waters have also enhanced photosynthesis and increased Arctic marine food web by 30%, bewilderingly, the associated rise in temperature is trumpeted as a crisis. It’ true expanding open waters absorb more sunlight, and this feedback raises temperatures even higher, dubbed “Arctic Amplification”. It has indeed raised Arctic air temperatures twice as fast as those in the US lower 48 states. But that rise is misleadingly increasing the global average temperature and has been incorrectly blamed on CO2. But most climate models now agree, it is intruding warm Pacific water pushing through the Bering Strait that forces Arctic Amplification.
Studies show the greatest Chukchi sea ice loss is associated with the 3 major pathways of the intruding warm water. The warmest pathway hugs the coast of western Alaska, affecting Kivalina as illustrated below by Itoh (2015). Importantly, it’s the volume of Bering Strait throughflow that determines the extent of annual open waters, and that throughflow volume is modulated by natural variations in atmospheric circulation. Using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s general circulation model, researchers determined inflows of warm water through the Bering Strait are controlled primarily by wind stress, with shifting winds explaining 90% or more of the changes. Other factors (precipitation, radiative fluxes [solar or greenhouse], water vapor, and air temperature) had negligible influence. Unfortunately, increased thinning and loss of sea ice has shortened the Inupiaq’s season for hunting seals and whales, forcing them to hunt and fish elsewhere.
The three major paths and temperatures of warmer Pacific water flowing through the Bering Strait into the Arctic. From Itoh 2015
The 2020 scientific study, Mechanisms Driving the Interannual Variability of the Bering Strait Throughflow detailed the causes of those changing winds. On the Arctic Ocean side of the Bering Strait, when the Beaufort High pressure system is stronger, winds transport ocean water offshore and lower sea level along the coast which allows greater Bering Strait throughflow. On the Pacific side of the strait, when the semi-permanent Aleutian Low-pressure system is located over the Aleutian Basin, winds pile up water along the eastern Bering Sea shelf. The resulting higher sea level pushes more warm water through the Bering Strait. Conversely, when the Aleutian Low shifts southward over the Gulf of Alaska northeasterly winds prevail, lowering sea level and weakening Bering Strait throughflow. Significantly, the Aleutian Low is affected by natural El Nino events and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). Several studies have shown that a switch to the negative PDO phase also causes the Aleutian Low to pump more warm air from the south into Alaska.
Changing winds and warm water inflows will increase open waters in the Chukchi Sea even during colder climates. Marine geologists examining Chukchi sediments have determined that over the past millennia, an ice-free Chukchi Sea happened independently of global climate, with ice-free conditions happening even during the recent Little Ice Age. Based on our current state of scientific knowledge, the changing conditions in the Arctic are best explained by naturally oscillating winds and ocean currents.
In 2015 the Obama/Biden administration sent U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to Kivalina who, without apologizing for Kivalina’s forced settlement, vowed to work on solutions for the climate-threatened village. Repeating the Climate Desk “climate refugee” trope Jewell grandstanded her empathy, "Hundreds of villagers in Kivalina face the terrible prospect of losing their land and homes to rising sea levels and coastal erosion, threatening their personal safety and putting them at risk of becoming climate change refugees within a decade". But it was little more than political posturing.
Kivalina and Newtok don’t exemplify climate crises. Kivalina and Newtok are iconic examples of how the media and governments have ignored the injustices suffered by native peoples, then use their troubles only when it promotes their crises agenda. Kivalina and Newtok are clear examples of government inappropriateness that forced “permanence” on a native culture well adapted to an everchanging natural environment; an environment where regional climates are always changing. I suggest defunding the BIA for its horrible decisions and use the BIA’s 1.9-billion-dollar annual budget to safely relocate the people of Kivalina, Newtok and others to a place of their choosing.
Jim Steele is Director emeritus of San Francisco State University’s Sierra Nevada Field Campus, authored Landscapes and Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism, and a member of the CO2 Coalition
Based on my writings on penguins I was honored by Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs to contribute a chapter on the current state of the Emperor Penguins in the IPA's new book Climate Change: The Facts 2020