How One Alaskan Community Is Attempting to Adapt to Climate Change

The Iñupiat use portable houses and sandbags to shield themselves from rising waters and melting permafrost, but can they save their culture?

Compared to even the most basic houses in the Lower 48, Elena Bodfish’s family home in Wainwright, Alaska, is modest. The cloud-gray, weathered two-story has no flush toilet, just a “honey bucket” that has to be emptied by hand; according to family lore, the house was built on a foundation made from the salvaged wood of an old shipwreck. But the place has its charms: It sits just above the beach on Alaska’s northern coast, and it has a picture window that looks out on the Chukchi Sea, a finger of the Arctic Ocean. Sometimes, between spring and fall, you can glimpse walruses and seals passing by on their migration routes. So Bodfish’s mother wasn’t happy when she learned years ago that they might have to pick up their home and move it—or risk seeing it collapse into the sea.

The Bodfishes are Iñupiat hunters, a native subsistence culture that has dominated Alaska’s North Slope for more than 10,000 years. When I arrived at their home at dusk one evening in September, the yard was strewn with hunting equipment—outboard motorboats, a snowmobile, an ATV—and a partially carved-up caribou lay on top of a wooden table. Elena Bodfish, who’s 23 and has a round face and a playful smile, met me there with her cousin and sidekick, James Griffin, a neatly bearded, earnest 26-year-old. They led me around to the back of the house, toward the beach, and stepped onto a “seawall” made of small boulders blanketing the incline where the tundra sloped down to the sand. As a kid, “all I did was play on the beach,” Bodfish said. “Back then it went really far.”

There have long been signs that climate change is gnawing at the edges of this century-old, 500-person village. In recent decades sea ice has begun to vanish earlier in the spring and reappear later in the fall, allowing more frequent high waves and storms to erode the shoreline by about a foot per year, on average, along the Chukchi coast. The seawall Bodfish and Griffin were standing on is only the latest in a long string of attempts by the North Slope Borough, the regional government of Alaska’s far north, to save the Bodfishes and their neighbors from having to pick up stakes and move inland. In the 1990s the Borough spent $16 million to bulk up the beach. Then came a modular wall composed of cube-shaped containers of sand encased in steel-mesh frames. But it was damaged by storms.

After that, “they put sandbags down,” Bodfish said.

“And those were just useless,” Griffin interjected.

“And they told us we were going to have to move the house,” said Bodfish. “But we were so dead-set on not moving.”

So the family decided to wait it out. And in 2013 the Borough began construction of the rock seawall, courtesy of a $9.7 million FEMA grant. Last August a storm pummeled Wainwright so ferociously that it left bits of grayish permafrost exposed on the sagging tundra bluffs. But the seawall survived, and the house can stay where it is, for the time being anyway.

Bodfish tries not to read the signs of warming as disaster. “Our ancestors adjusted,” she said. “So we can adjust.”

"Picture a giant ice cube; that’s what the north coast of Alaska is,” explained Tom Ravens, a civil engineer at the University of Alaska-Anchorage who has studied coastal erosion on the North Slope. The tundra here can barely be called land—it’s more like a bit of soil suspended in a matrix of ice, more than two-thirds ice by volume. Warm this place up, and things begin to fall apart.

Outside one of the Borough’s municipal buildings in Wainwright, I found Roy Ahmaogak, a slim-built maintenance worker (who also happened to be Elena’s uncle), taking a cigarette break as snow collected on the ground. He pointed to a puddle in the road. “Anything you see like that is a possible break in the water lines,” he said.

Building infrastructure has always been a delicate operation here; anything placed in or on the tundra can conduct heat into the ice. But climate change has turned what might have been a regular maintenance issue into a growing, region-wide crisis. Over the past several decades the temperature of North Slope permafrost has increased by about 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and the effect has been something akin to an earthquake in slow motion. As the tundra shifts and sinks, buildings shift and sink with it, leaving houses tilted or cracked, and pipes and sewer lines wrenched and ruptured. Two winters ago the water pipes broke so often that at times the local health clinic had to be closed and the village utility had to send trucks to haul emergency water from a nearby lake.

“There’s change,” Ahmaogak acknowledged. “Everybody knows that. We’re trying to adapt.”

Words like “adaptation” and “resilience” get thrown around a lot in the discussion about how the world will cope with the effects of climate change. But on the North Slope, an area the size of Wyoming that’s home to 6,000 Iñupiat—whose ancestors migrated across the Bering land bridge more than 13,000 years ago, during the last ice age—the notion of adaptation has a particular resonance. Iñupiat people have witnessed more radical change in the past 50 years than most cultures see in several centuries. After the oil industry set up shop in Prudhoe Bay, in the 1960s and 1970s, the new revenue transformed the region; dog sleds gave way to snowmobiles, the North Slope’s first high schools opened, and the formation of a regional government and investment in public works created hundreds of new jobs. 

By the end of this century, winter temperatures here are expected to have risen by as much as 20 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit. The most recent National Climate Assessment, which outlines the potential crises looming in Alaska, prefaces its news with a reassurance, noting that Alaska Native communities “have deep cultural reservoirs of flexibility and adaptability.” Even so, as temperatures continue to climb in a region held together, physically and culturally, by ice, it’s not exactly clear what “adaptation” will even mean, or what it will look like. There’s no question that people on the North Slope will have to change the way they live—the questions are how, and how much.

When shifting permafrost ruptures a water line on the North Slope, the Borough generally is responsible for fixing it. But some engineers have been tinkering with a different idea: Instead of fixing the pipes, why not fix the permafrost?

As Sisyphean a task as it might seem, Alaskans have been experimenting with artificially refrigerating or insulating the tundra for decades. Billy Connor, director of the Alaska University Transportation Center at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, was behind an attempt in the mid-1990s, when he built a set of pipes filled with liquid coolant under the fire-and-rescue center next to the airport in Barrow, the North Slope’s largest town. Recently he recommended to the Borough another common method for shoring up buildings—“thermosiphons,” long tubes that circulate compressed gases to draw heat out of the ground.

Simon Evans, an engineer with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and a consultant based in Anchorage, has developed his own design for refreezing the tundra. His relies on solar-powered cooling coils, like the ones in a refrigerator, placed beneath buildings and infrastructure. He recently tested this idea on an Arctic water treatment plant in northwest Alaska, and he’s submitted a patent for his cooling process.

Iñupiat whalers have for generations dug ice cellars into the ground to preserve meat from the hunt, but now many cellars are failing—either collapsing or filling with water. Cellars full of thawing meat and blubber have even drawn hungry polar bears near people’s homes. In response, Evans came up with a techie version of an ice cellar that uses solar or wind power to keep meat cool. His design was reprinted in the Obama administration’s “Climate Resilience Toolkit.”

The prospect of reengineering the tundra itself carries a certain kind of technocratic appeal. But Evans is realistic. He knows that he’s “not solving the long-term problems for these people.” His designs can only buy them time. “Let’s give them 20 years,” he said, “so they can come up with a Plan B.”

While I was in Wainwright a construction crew was putting the finishing touches on five sturdy-looking, lichen-colored houses built on some spongy tundra hillocks at the edge of town, about 70 miles southeast of where Royal Dutch Shell’s rigs were probing the seafloor. If seawalls and permafrost-cooling devices are an attempt to stave off the effects of climate change, these houses represent the opposite approach: Accept the fact that change is coming, and that it will require nothing less than a radical re-envisioning of the way people live.

The houses are part of a project led by Claude Garoutte, a broad-shouldered, mustached former logger from Colorado who first came to Alaska in the late 1990s to hunt bears and ended up moving here permanently. About nine years ago Garoutte found a job with the Tagiugmiullu Nunamiullu Housing Authority, the North Slope’s regional housing agency, which had begun looking at designs for high-energy-efficiency prototype houses. At the time Garoutte had never sent an email, but he taught himself how to run an office and soon became the head of a project to build 30 eco-houses all over the North Slope. “We know that we can’t hold back Mother Nature,” Garoutte told me. He believes his newfangled homes will “set the standard for the world to follow.”

I met Garoutte in Barrow on a frigid September afternoon, and he led me on a tour of a canary-yellow house that his crew had recently assembled on a black gravel lot across the street from a badly eroded beach. The house was unfinished, just bare studs, but on the inside the air was relatively cozy, even without a heater. Encased in thick foam insulation and powered partly by solar panels, the eco-houses use 80 to 90 percent less energy than the typical North Slope dwelling. Instead of a sewer hookup, the buildings are connected to an external black tank that uses bacteria to compost human waste.

Outside, Garoutte squatted beside the house to show me its most unusual feature: an iron foundation that resembled a giant bed frame, with six legs. If the ground below tilted or sank, you could—with a little training and a handheld jack—shorten or lengthen the legs to make the house level again. He pointed to the back of the structure, where the bottom edges of the frame curved upward like the blades of a toboggan. “This is your sled,” he said. If the tundra became too unruly, you could, in theory, slide the house across the ice to a safer spot, wherever that might be, though no one has yet tested this out.

The houses are an experiment, and the project hasn’t been without setbacks—in Point Lay, at least one eco-house had a problem with a sinking foundation that couldn’t be easily releveled. But Garoutte believes fervently in the principles underlying them. Any vision of the future in which people use their homes as escape pods, attempting to flee collapsing terrain, is necessarily apocalyptic—but there’s something utopian about it, too. “If you’re only using 10 percent of the oil,” said Garoutte, “do you really need to go out into the ocean, sink some oil wells into it, and destroy this lifestyle that’s been here for thousands of years?”

It’s impossible to talk about how global warming will change life for the Iñupiat without thinking about oil. Shell shelved its Chukchi Sea drilling plan in late September, but onshore operations have long been the economic life of the North Slope; most households here rely on the dividends from oil and gas revenue given out by the native-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and by the Alaska Permanent Fund, which pays every Alaskan a share of the state’s oil proceeds. And taxes on oil companies make up most of the North Slope Borough’s budget. Statewide, the oil and gas industry accounts for nearly 90 percent of unrestricted public revenue.

But in recent years the changes wrought by fossil fuels have become more uncomfortable, as the tension between the region’s—and the state’s—short-term economic dependence on the industry and the longer-term consequences have come more clearly into focus. That tension was on display in October, when Alaska Governor Bill Walker made an argument for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling in order to bring in revenue to pay for climate response measures in the state.

“We are in a significant fiscal challenge. We have villages that are washing away because of the change in the climate,” Walker told an interviewer from BBC News, referring to communities like Kivalina, on the western coast, that will soon need to be relocated due to coastal erosion.

“So you’re saying the climate change impacts in Alaska—you need to be allowed to continue to drill and explore and produce oil to pay for some of those impacts?” asked the interviewer.

“Absolutely,” Walker said. “In a responsible way, as we have in the past.”

Last summer Elena Bodfish started to come into her own as a hunter. “I got my first seal!” she said gleefully, and showed me pictures on her cellphone. Traditionally most seals were caught when there was ice at the shore, and the animal could be lifted easily onto the ice and butchered. But in the longer ice-free summers of the past several years, hunting has more often involved traveling farther into the open water, and then hoisting the seal onto a boat to bring it back to land. Bodfish’s seal was big; it took several people to help her get it into her boat.

In a place where thousands of people depend on hunting to feed their families, the changes in seasonal ice patterns have been troubling. Ransom Agnasagga, a local whaler in his mid-40s, told me the rivers on the North Slope used to stay frozen until June and the sea ice usually lingered until July 4. Now both the river ice and the sea ice are gone by May. Earlier thaws have made the landscape less familiar, and more dangerous.

“Gauging the thickness of the ice with your instincts is harder now,” Agnasagga said when I met him at the home he shares with his wife, Linda. “People have broken through. You just have to be careful.” A few years ago a flooded river stranded the couple for several days on their way back from a spring goose hunt.

Ransom, who has a long ponytail and wears chunky black glasses, reclined on a couch beside a sleeping infant grandson while Linda tended a pan of oil sizzling with “Eskimo donuts,” an Alaskan version of fry bread. In the kitchen, pots dangled from caribou antlers mounted to a wall covered in wood paneling. Next to the dining table, a cloth baby cradle hung from a rope suspended from the ceiling, and beside it, another antler rack was draped with children’s coats sewn from wolf fur, sealskin, and caribou hide. Linda pointed to a crack running the length of one wall. “It goes all the way up,” she said.

“The house moves around,” Ransom explained. “I don’t know if it’s normal or not.”

I asked if they worried about climate change. “What good would it do to worry about it?” Linda said.

The most disconcerting thing about the feeble ice season has been its effect on spring whaling, the lifeblood of Wainwright. In May and June the ice shelf used to jut from the land into deeper waters, where mammals travel, and the crews could hoist the whales onto the shorefast ice, where the village could carve up the meat. But now, according to Enoch Oktollik, an elder and former mayor of the village, the ice is looking thinner, “like it’s starting to be unstable to land whales.” The retreating sea ice has contributed to disappointingly short spring whaling seasons in recent years, and warming may eventually lead to a decline in actual populations: Scientists estimate that by 2027 the Chukchi Sea will be overwhelmed by acidification, the effects of which will reverberate up the food chain, and a recent study projected that climate change could cut the bowhead’s habitat nearly in half.

Most people I spoke with in Wainwright can’t picture a future that doesn’t involve hunting and whaling. “I don’t even want to live off store food,” Bodfish told me. “I can’t. We’re still going to hunt. Even if we have to go really far out.”

About five years ago, to compensate for the shortened spring whaling season, locals organized a second annual whale harvest, in September and October, when the bowheads circle back on their migration route. In mid-September I was standing in Wainwright’s only restaurant, a counter-service burger-and-steak operation in the town hotel, when the news went out over high-frequency radio that a crew had taken a whale in the open water. More than a dozen people leaped to their feet. A frail man wearing a cross, an elder who could speak to me only in the native Iñupiaq language, embraced me euphorically.

Hours later the lights of the whaling boats appeared on the horizon. At about 9 p.m. the crews dropped the whale at the north end of the beach and hauled it to the south end with a forklift. In the spring the village would have gathered on the ice, under the midnight sun, and peeled away the meat. This whale had to be carved in the dark, on the tundra. Under glaring lights attached to a rumbling generator, it felt like a sporting event. Parents posed their children for photos with the whale. For two hours teams of men and women cleaved the meat from the bones using long-handled knives and metal hooks. Then they cut it into portions, one for each household in the village and an extra pile for the whaling crew. In the cold, someone handed me a cup of caribou stew and, eventually, a four-inch sliver of cooked blubber and skin, called muktuk. When the carving was done, everyone gathered in a circle and recited a Christian prayer, then cheered. Later the hunters would haul the carcass to the beach south of the village and leave it for the polar bears.

As I turned to leave, someone called my name. “What did you think?” Roy Ahmaogak, the maintenance worker, asked, running up behind me. “It’s good you got to see how we live,” he said. He repeated it, proudly. “That’s how we live!”