KIVALINA, Alaska — It’s whaling season in Kivalina, an Alaskan island 1,000 miles to the Northwest of Anchorage. Soon the whaling crews will drive out to the ice’s edge and set up camp, scanning the Chukchi sea for bowheads, reenacting a tradition that spans centuries.
When a whale is caught in Kivalina, everyone rejoices. The whaling captain is celebrated, the elders distribute the meat down to every last morsel, stories of heroism are shared, and people celebrate for days.
But catching a bowhead is anything but certain — there hasn’t been a successful catch in more than 20 years. In this small community of around 450 indigenous people, just about everything is uncertain.
Few places in the world have been as dramatically rocked by climate change as Kivalina. Temperature increases in Alaska double the global average, Arctic sea ice has dissipated by 50 percent since 1979, and a range of tipping points and chain reactions are altering the environment.
“Climate change is one of the greatest threats in Alaskan history,” said Rick Steiner of Oasis Earth, an Anchorage-based environmental advocacy group. “Everything in Alaska is at risk.”
For the people of Kivalina, though, the biggest change is on the ice. What was once reliable is now anything but. A snow-covered hole might open up, causing you and your snowmobile to plunge into icy waters. A fissure could crackle underneath, causing the ice sheet you’re camping on to drift toward Russia. Or there may be no ice at all.
“You can’t go out in this kind of environment unless you really know what you’re doing,” Enoch Adams Jr., a whaling captain and Episcopal preacher, told me. “You might not come home.”
Within 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers has said that this barrier island will no longer be a viable place to live — the inhabitants will be effectively evicted from their homes by climate change.
By 2100, as many as 13 million people living in coastal regions of the US and hundreds of millions of more people throughout the world could be displaced by climate change.
Most of the world’s agencies tasked with dealing with climate change have not evolved to adequately address the problem. A few other isolated efforts, including the Paris climate accords, are trying to transform the global status quo, but business-as-usual tendencies are overwhelming these efforts.
Nowhere is this tension more apparent than in Alaska, a state addicted to oil that’s literally melting under the weight of climate change.
“It’s not just the erosion of the coastline,” said Michael Gerace, architect, artist, and founder of Relocate Alaska, an advocacy group that’s been helping Kivalina relocate for the past five years. “It’s the erosion and failure of government. Alaska is on the frontline of massive upheaval.”
Against this daunting backdrop, citizens of Kivalina are emerging as unlikely pioneers, navigating a thicket of logistical challenges to champion their own relocation. Cities and towns in similar positions have garnered headlines for deciding they must move because of climate change. And now the people of Kivalina are showing us what happens next.
If they succeed, then perhaps the term relocation, which for so many indigenous people evokes the trauma of colonialism, can be reclaimed and dignified. Perhaps the uncertain future of climate change can be managed. And perhaps the mass turmoil looming over various parts of the world can be averted.