In November 2018, a storm hit the small barrier island community of Kivalina on Alaska’s northwest coast. As violent waves crashed against the rocks, some residents stayed up through the night, beefing up the temporary erosion protection around the airstrip with rocks, super sacs, and pieces of old fuel tanks. They worked to protect their families—and the very existence of their community. Early winter, which brings the most violent storms before sea ice moves in to protect the coastline—a protection that is coming later and later each year—are the most worrisome months for this vulnerable community. A storm too violent or a wave too tall could overtop the island and bring total devastation.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is working to improve the safety and resiliency of Kivalina through two projects that began in 2019. To protect the airstrip, the community’s only way out in the winter, contractor Brice, Inc. installed permanent erosion control that consists of a 4,000-foot-long sloped rock wall made of 40,000 tons of rock. These erosion control measures are designed to withstand a 100-year storm surge or a storm that has a 1 percent probability of occurring in any given year.
With an eye toward a longer-term solution, another project is currently being constructed by ASRC Civil Construction, a subsidiary of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, which will result in an approximately seven-mile evacuation road, with a 3,200-foot lagoon crossing, which will connect Kivalina to the mainland. The all-season evacuation route will be used by the community in the event of a catastrophic storm or ocean surge. As Stanley Hawley, Tribal Administrator for the Native Village of Kivalina, put it when construction on the evacuation road began, “Upon this moment lies the future well-being of our people.”