Study aims to help Alaska’s North Slope officials adapt to climate change hazards

(UTQIAĠVIK, Alaska)—Stacy Bowen’s family has owned The Fur Shop for some 40 years. The cream-colored store in Utqiaġvik sits on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Crammed floor to ceiling with animal skins, costume jewelry, fabric bolts, souvenir sweatshirts and fresh flowers flown in from the tropics, the eclectic shop is a commercial hub for the northernmost city in the United States.


The Chukchi Sea as seen from Utqiaġvik on a clear day in July 2018. Photo by Paula Dobbyn

From its perch on a bluff overlooking ice floes, seabirds and marine mammals, the shop serves an isolated community of about 4,000 people, most of them Iñupiat Eskimos. It’s a place to drop off laundry for cleaning, buy toys, wire money and order home delivery of water.


The Fur Shop in Utqiaġvik is a commercial lifeline to residents. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

“We go where the customers take us,” said Bowen.


Stacy Bowen, manager of The Fur Shop, stands on the beach below her family’s store.

While the Fur Shop is a commercial lifeline for this remote Arctic community, its physical location is precarious. Were it not for a retaining wall anchoring the bluff, The Fur Shop might have washed into the sea last September when a ferocious storm ate away many feet of coastline adjacent to the shop. The storm caused millions of dollars in damage to roads, wrecked buildings and archeological sites and prompted a disaster declaration from the governor.


University of Alaska Anchorage graduate student Cheryl Magee and University of Leeds incoming doctoral student Anuszka Mosurska walk on the beach in Utqiaġvik. Above them are abandoned and occupied buildings, include The Fur Shop. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

It wasn’t the first time Utqiaġvik suffered such major devastation and it’s unlikely to be the last. As temperatures in the Arctic rise, sea ice is disappearing. Shore-fast ice forms a protective barrier for coastal Arctic communities like Utqiaġvik. As the ice retreats, coastal Alaska communities are becoming more vulnerable to natural hazards such flooding, destructive wave action and loss of human life.

Bowen has seen the climate drastically during her many years in Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow.

“The weather is definitely not the same as it was 20 years ago. It’s been a big concern not just because of erosion but because of subsistence and our way of life,” Bowen said.

Utqiaġvik’s Iñupiat residents rely on bowhead whale and other sea and land animals for food and culture. As the Arctic heats up—twice as fast as anywhere on Earth—the behavior of animals is changing, putting Iñupiat food security at risk.


A bowhead whale skull outside the North Slope Borough building. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

To boost Utqiaġvik’s ability to manage climate change threats, Alaska Sea Grant is supporting research driven by local citizen scientists. The work is being done on the beach just below The Fur Shop and elsewhere along the town’s shoreline.


Community volunteer Jason Russell trains with UAA associate professor John Bean. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

Project leaders are building local capacity and providing training to  volunteers who use survey instruments to monitor and document changes to the coast. The project, which began several years ago, focuses on observing and forecasting storm surges, flooding and erosion. The goal is to provide local risk managers with information they need to better protect the community.

Much of the work is taking place along the beach where homes and critical infrastructure are located, including a utilidor, pump stations and a defunct landfill.

The utilidor is an underground artery that runs over three miles through permafrost, carrying vital services to Utqiaġvik residents, including water, sewer, telephone, fiber-optic cable, and electricity. If a storm were to take out the utilidor, longtime Utqiaġvik resident and archeologist Anne Jensen says the town would be faced with an immediate public health crisis.

“You’d have 4,000 people who all of sudden couldn’t wash their hands,” Jensen said.

Cultural history washing away

A short walk down Stevenson Street from the Fur Shop sits a row of houses. Some are abandoned, their owners having fled before disaster struck. Others remain occupied.


An abandoned building sits near a bluff along Stephensen Street in Utqiaġvik. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

A large house on this stretch of two-lane dirt road stands out for its relative grandeur among Utqiaġvik’s typically weather-beaten structures. It’s the home of one of Alaska’s most prominent men, Oliver Leavitt.

Leavitt is a whaling captain and director of Arctic Slope Regional Corporation. He’s one of the founders of this Native-owned corporation, one of Alaska’s most successful companies, reporting $2.4 billion in revenue in 2016, according to published reports.

Leavitt’s spacious house is located mere feet from the edge of a bluff. On a sunny day in July, a barbeque sat on the lawn between the house and the steep drop-off. The lights were on.


The home of Oliver Leavitt sits on a bluff a short distance away from the Chukchi Sea. The remains of sod houses are visible below the house. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

It’s unclear if the house will survive the next big storm. Leavitt could not be reached for comment.

Protruding from the sandy soil of the bluff beneath Leavitt’s home are pieces of wood, remnants of sod houses occupied by Utqiaġvik’s ancestors thousands of years ago. A sign warns the public not to collect any archeological remains from the site or risk of facing fines of up to $250,000 and fives years in prison.

“Their cultural heritage is going into the ocean,” said anthropologist Anne Garland, who is leading the volunteer training. She’s with Applied Research in Environmental Sciences NonProfit, Inc.


Anne Garland drives to a transect in Utqiaġvik where she is training local residents to be coastal monitors. Photo by Dave Partee.

On the beach below the Leavitt home, Garland was working with University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) professor John Bean on the Alaska Sea Grant-funded project.

John Bean

UAA associate professor John Bean trains Jason Russell to take shoreline measurements. Photo by Dave Partee.

On a Sunday afternoon in July, temperatures hovered in the mid-30s. As a seal bobbed in icy water offshore, Garland and Bean trained a small group of community volunteers to take shoreline measurements and calculate features of waves, wind and water levels . Accompanying them were two graduate students.

Cheryl Magee is studying electrical engineering at UAA.


Cheryl Magee balances on an ice floe. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

Anuszka Mosurska will soon begin a PhD program at the University of Leeds in England, focusing on the human dimensions of climate change.


Anuszka Mosurska is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Leeds, England. Photo by Dave Partee.

With Magee and Mosurska’s help in holding the survey instruments, Bean gave some basic instructions.

“Okay, push the leg down into the sand like this. Not too hard,” Bean said, showing Jason Russell how to install an automatic level upon the black sand beneath them.

Russell is a library archivist who is learning how to measure the profile of the beach. Once he has mastered the technique, Russell will be assigned a transect, or a stretch of the study area. He will be asked to take measurements once a month or as soon as it’s safe after a storm.


Jason Russell has been trained as a coastal monitor. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

“Having these precise data points, you can start to generate predictive models to see which areas need additional funding,” said Russell.

Documenting how much shoreline loss occurs each year gives local risk managers the data they need to take protective actions or apply for federal dollars for hazard mitigation.

Forecasting threats

A man-made berm is the lone structure holding Utqiaġvik back from the Arctic Ocean. Other sections of town are in the direct line of the sea.


Utqiaġvik resident and coastal monitor Ralph Davis stands on a berm that provides some protection from storms. Photo by Paula Dobbyn

When major storms barrel ashore, the accompanying waves and storm surge attack the berm, prompting bulldozers to fan out on the beach and push new sand into place. It’s an endless fight against the elements. As temperatures warm and the sea ice melts, the battle to save the berm grows ever more intense.

So far, the North Slope Borough has been unable to secure funding to get a seawall built, a more permanent structure that would protect the utilidor and other critical structures.

Estimates for a seawall range in the hundreds of millions of dollars and upward.


UAA associate professor John Bean prepares to take measurements of the berm which separates parts of Utqiaġvik from the ocean. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

While the funding search plays out, researchers hope to develop a system to better forecast how the changes in climate and coastal erosion will effect Utqiaġvik. In addition to  using trained volunteers to calculate beach geometry and storm surge heights, a high-tech video camera will be installed on a public building to collect imagery of wave conditions and sea levels.

The data will be used to strengthen Utqiaġvik’s erosion forecasting system so managers will know where the greatest threats exist during any given storm. It’ll also be made available to the State of Alaska’s Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

Garland, who has been working with the North Slope Borough’s Office of Risk Management, says coastal erosion is identified as the number one risk Utqiaġvik residents face.

“If the sanitary landfill gets washed out, that affects the entire Arctic Ocean. If any of the utilities goes down, there’s a cascade effect. It’ll be very hard to recover from that whether they’re on the shoreline or not,” Garland said.

Micheal Judkins is one of the Utqiaġvik residents who has been trained as a shoreline monitor. The transect he’s working on near The Fur Shop retreated at least 30 feet last year, Garland said. While he is contributing his time taking shoreline measurements, Judkins is resigned to the vulnerability his town is facing.


A set of whale jawbones is perched into the sand in Utqiaġvik. Photo by Paula Dobbyn.

“There’s not much you can do to reverse the inevitable,” Judkins said.

He’s not expecting much help either.

“I don’t think the federal or state governments care about it. If they cared, something would be done about it.”

That said, Judkins had a message for people outside of Utqiaġvik.

“Some people look at it here as a wasteland. But if you come here you’ll see, there is life everywhere. It’s teeming with life,” Judkins said.