Endangered Frontier: Erosion threat sees Shaktoolik stand and fight, for now

Published: Oct. 25, 2019 at 7:31 PM AKDT
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Sitting between the Bering Sea and the Tagoomenik River, the tiny village of Shaktoolik faces an uncertain future.

The Northwest Alaska village has a single street of roughly 250 residents, located on a patch of sand not much wider than a football field. That patch is getting smaller as the sea strips back the land, threatening homes.

The oceanside has another threat, it faces the full brunt of fall storms that come in with terrifying ferocity.

Houses shake as waves hit the beach. Thirty-foot long driftwood logs are tossed around like toothpicks.

A storm hits the coast of Shaktoolik in Nov. 2011. Citizens post watch during nighttime storms to monitor for breaches of the bluff (Photo courtesy of Lynda Bekoalok)

Residents say the storms are occurring more frequently. Sea ice typically acts as a buffer but in recent years, the ice has been coming in thinner and later.

To make matters worse, Fred Sagoonick, Shaktoolik Tribal Council member, explains that the storms often hit at the dead of night.

Community members stand watch with spotlights, waiting to see if the water poses a threat.

Escape is difficult to imagine. Flying in during the hurricane-force storms is all but impossible and there is no road to leave on.

“If there was ice on the river, it would be really dangerous to evacuate by boat,” Sagoonick said.

A 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office identified Shaktoolik as one of four villages in immediate need of relocation, but community members have so far decided to stay in order to take advantage of increased grant funding

The community can hole up in the school cafeteria. Some officials are concerned that a disastrous storm could see waves breach the cement walls.

After a particularly bad storm in 2013, the community built a gravel berm that aimed to halt the coastal erosion. No one seems particularly convinced that it offers permanent protection.

“I don’t think it will hold, it’s a security blanket,” Sagoonick said.”I think it will give something for the water to work on.”

The berm was tested in August by a fierce storm that can come early in the season.

Before and after photos showing the damage to the Shaktoolik coast during a severe storm in the fall of 2019 (Photos courtesy of Gloria Andrew)

Former Shaktoolik Mayor Eugene Asicksik says around one-third of the gravel eroded away, necessitating for the berm to be reconstructed.

A few miles southeast of the current village site sits the skeletal remains of the old Shaktoolik, abandoned in the 1970s. A particularly bad flood in 1964 awoke residents to the ocean’s dangers.

Randy Takak, a commercial fisherman, thinks that relocation is inevitable. "For the future of our children and their children, it might be better to just move."

There, the land gap between the river and the sea is at its narrowest. Asicksik is concerned; the community pumps freshwater from the Tagoomenik and if it becomes an island, the possibility of evacuation during emergencies becomes even less likely.

Some rocks were shipped in from St. Michael to bolster the berm.

Across Shaktoolik, the idea of building a more solid rockwall has support but it’s expensive and logistically difficult to organize.

Mayor Edgar Jackson pitches the idea of building a seven-mile road away from the coast towards the mountains and higher ground. An evacuation center would also be needed.

Rubble from the old village site of Shaktoolik, which was abandoned in the 1970s for similar problems of erosion.

Jackson soon plans to speak to the U.S. Coast Guard about the idea of flying a C-130 in before a bad storm is forecast and flying out residents.

Before any of these plans come to fruition, the community plans to stand and fight rather than relocate.

Sagoonick says at one point the idea was made public to move the village but it had unintended consequences. Funding for capital projects shrunk.

In 2013, as the berm was planned, the community decided to stay. Money flowed in again and a state-of-the-art health clinic was constructed this past spring.

Funding for the new health clinic in Shaktoolik was only secured once the community decided it would not relocated to a new site, but ironically it too could fall victim to the marching erosion.

A long-overdue fuel tank farm will soon be installed. Sagoonick says at least two of the current diesel tanks have had to be condemned.

There are other reasons to stay, the village is currently close to subsistence resources such as fish and marine mammals.

Despite that, there seems to be a general agreement that relocation will one day be necessary.

“We all have a right to safety, to live free from fear,” Sagoonick said.

A narrow strip of land is all that keeps the Bering Sea from Shaktoolik.
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