How state governments and local communities are responding to the effects of climate change.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT&PF) is actively monitoring, responding and planning against the affects of climate change across 1,067,478 sq km of landmass. Here are the stories of this innovative team and the communities they serve, working together to build a more resilient Alaska.
Life at the edge of the world
Climate change began to make major headlines in the last two decades, and has only recently been recognized as a threat to national security. But for the Inupiaq whaling community of Kivalina, Alaska, it has been a conversation for the last 100 years.
Resettled to a 27-acre barrier island off the north western coast of Alaska in 1905, a relocation back to the mainland was a distant hope for elders. Today’s mixed generations share mixed feelings about the move, but with rapid erosion and rising sea levels the community is actively working with DOT&PF to monitor conditions and plan for their future.
Traditionally, Kivalina residents traveled on ice to reach other towns and dispersed areas for fishing, firewood, and subsistence. Not only is the ice disappearing but the single airstrip—a key access point to the island—is also eroding. Increasingly frequent stormsurges cause flash flooding, which is killing off vital vegetation.
In Alaska, it doesn’t matter how small or remote a village is. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities takes pride in serving all its communities. Nearly complete, DOT&PF is constructing a road for emergency evacuation should a strong stormsurge flood the island—a project that requires a reliable view of what's changing on the ground.
Preserving the oldest community in America
Some 2,000 years ago, prehistoric settlers crossed the Siberian land bridge and began a bowhead whaling community at the tip of what would later be known as the Lisburne peninsula. Structures and artifacts dating back to 500 BC make this distant Alaskan borough the oldest archaeological site in the U.S.
Today, Point Hope is the second largest city on the North Slope, home to nearly a thousand residents who rely on subsistence hunting, fishing, and whaling. While warming temperatures have brought new fish species into the area, the melting permafrost threatens seasonal livelihood.
Isolated from the outside world and its luxuries, Point Hope uses underground cellars, cooled by permafrost, to store food throughout the year. Cellars that are no longer reliable for preservation due to rising ground temperatures.
DOT&PF is planning adjustments to the Point Hope runway, which has been eroding and threatening to cut off a vital access point for critical resources, food, and transportation. Because of its location, Point Hope experiences prolonged periods of seasonal darkness, rendering optical satellite imagery ineffective.
The DOT&PF regional team searched for feasible solutions to help them monitor the city through seasonal challenges. Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellites, such as RADARSAT-2 operated by Maxar's partner MDA, can collect through inclement weather and at night, enabling DOT&PF to keep a close eye on Point Hope year-round.
Losing ground for a lifeline
Kotzebue is a transportation and economic center in Northwest Alaska. Regional supplies are brought in on large shipping barges between July and October when the Kotzebue Sound is ice-free. However, as sea levels rise and water bodies move, sediments are shifting rendering the harbor increasingly more shallow.
Currently, the method of delivery from barge to lighter to shore is driving up costs for goods and energy. With no roads or railroads to the city, Kotzebue residents and businesses rely solely on these shipments for supplies. Together, community leaders and DOT&PF began to research possibilities for a new port site with deeper water. Cape Blossom was determined the best location.
About 15 miles south, Cape Blossom offered a port site with deeper water and space for a storage facility on land. As plans began to take shape, DOT&PF spotted a big problem in the imagery. The shoreline was retreating at an alarming rate.
Since 2002, the shoreline has eroded approximately 400 feet. In 2019 alone, the shoreline retreated 80 feet.
The shoreline is a fifty-fifty mixture of soil and ice. And with the permafrost now exposed, the shoreline will continue to melt at increasing rates—creating a moving target for site planners. With a price tag of $3.2 million per mile (two lane road), this is not a project the state can afford to miscalculate.
The Cape Blossom road promises a new lifeline for supplies as well as room for community growth, access to recreation and subsistence areas, and private landholdings. Despite the challenges, DOT&PF is monitoring ground conditions to keep plans updated for future development.
Toggle seasonal changes over the years.
Managing the havoc of a wayward river
Whether visiting or residing in Alaska, the call to explore its serene wilderness is inescapable. The Copper River Highway connects tourists, scientists, hunters, business overs, and adventurers to the Copper River Delta—home to the famed Copper River salmon. DOT&PF maintain this scenic route, which has seen a lot of activity over the last two decades.
Like many undammed river deltas, Copper River moves. But with escalated conditions brought on by climate change, the river is washing out land and roads. More recently, melting glaciers have released icebergs downstream, damaging bridges and ice-breakers—putting travelers at risk.
In 2011, river erosion made bridge 339 impassable, which sits just over 30 miles outside Cordova. Eventually, it completely washed away the 1,500 feet of land between bridge 339 and the subsequent bridge.
In 2018, high waters drove out another 1,000 feet beyond these bridges, making it impossible for DOT&PF crews and their equipment to reach the site for repairs.
Monitoring and managing over 370,000 square miles of Alaskan territory is difficult. But with access to Maxar satellite imagery, the team can keep an eye on remote areas and determine when and what kind of assistance is needed —especially as the team is forced to weigh the costs of maintaining infrastructure in remote recreational areas.
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