NUIQSUT — The varnished wooden cross stands amid a cluster of grave markers tilted at odd angles in the cemetery, because the ground beneath them is sinking. Rising temperatures are thawing the once-frozen earth, forming pools of water that run through the graveyard.
In late May, Martha Itta buried her 89-year-old grandmother here. Before the ceremony even began, a young villager had to siphon off water that had crept into the grave.
Not even the dead are immune from climate change.
On Alaska’s North Slope, a remote wilderness of astonishing vastness and variety, the cold Arctic landscape once seemed eternal. When her grandmother was a girl, Itta’s ancestors were nomads, roaming the mountains, rivers and tundra in search of caribou and other game. Now, Itta lives in Nuiqsut (noo-IK-sut), a village of some 480 whose lives have been utterly transformed by oil.
Oil drilling has brought great prosperity to Nuiqsut, but the town's very foundations are imperiled by oil's fundamental role in the global economy. In a nation coming to recognize the effects of climate change - and to question the dependence on fossil fuels that drive global warming - the village is caught between a comfortable present and a frightening future.
With a coastline running 650 miles along the Arctic Ocean, the North Slope Borough is bigger than Kansas. But it remains one of America's most sparsely populated places, with just 10,000 people living in eight villages across 95,000 square miles.
Nuiqsut is one of them.
It has fallen to Itta, the town's 42-year-old tribal administrator, to steer her town away from the deal its founders brokered two decades ago. She is convinced that to preserve her people's heritage, their environment and the animals they depend on, they must slow the fossil fuel extraction that has brought both money and a melting tundra.
Here at the edge of the North Slope, the annual temperature has risen 7.3 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), a Washington Post analysis of a century of temperature data has found.
It is, along with a sliver of Siberia and the Norwegian island of Svalbard, the fastest-warming spot of land on Earth.
With global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to climb, and a new oil boom in Alaska on the horizon, there is no cure in sight.
Already, by nearly every measure, the changes here and across the state have been profound.
Sea ice cover in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas hit a record low of 270,000 square miles at the end of October, half of what it averaged between 1981 and 2010.
As a result, winters are warming. In nearby Utqiagvik, (oot-key-AH-vik) formerly known as Barrow, the average daily temperature this year was 9.2 degrees Fahrenheit (5.1 degrees Celsius) higher than usual. By Dec. 12, only 32 days had been at or below normal in a year that so far ranks as Alaska's warmest on record.
Less sea ice means more open water and more moisture in the air - which comes down as rain and snow. In the past three years rainfall here has doubled compared with the preceding decade, according to University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Christopher Arp.
All that water helps dissolve the ice wedges in frozen tundra known as permafrost, which has warmed between 5.4 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (3 and 4 degrees Celsius) in the past three decades. Some 600 more lakes linked to thawing permafrost have appeared on the North Slope since 1955, according to UAF researcher Prajna Lindgren. And the oil industry itself is planting hundreds of refrigerated tubes into the permafrost to keep its infrastructure from sinking.
"Water is the death of permafrost," said Torre Jorgenson, owner of Alaska Ecoscience, a consulting firm.
These changes are drowning Alaska Native towns. Twelve rural villages are hoping to relocate to drier ground, making their nearly 4,000 residents among the first climate refugees in the United States. Fourteen more are considered “high priority” for relocation.
All manner of wildlife have been affected. Bowhead whales were late to appear this fall in the warming Arctic waters. Grizzlies and beavers have been showing up in greater numbers in recent years as the changing climate makes the Arctic more hospitable. And tens of thousands of summer chum salmon died of heat stress this summer in western Alaska, where river temperatures soared above 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21.1 degrees Celsius).
The 2019 thaw season on the North Slope’s coast was the greatest on record, degrading cultural and archaeological sites from ice cellars to ancient settlements to graveyards. Anne Jensen, a scientist who has worked on the North Slope for a third of a century, said Alaska Natives face the prospect of losing a tangible connection to their past a generation from now, “because it’s not going to be there anymore.”
But Itta cannot accept that scenario. A no-nonsense, somewhat weary civil servant, she has opted to fight further drilling even though it is unclear what could sustain the economy in place of oil.
From her perspective, her elders are watching her even though they are gone. She still posts messages to her late grandmother on her Facebook page. "Today, I work for you,'' Itta wrote on what would have been her grandmother's 90th birthday.
"I hear what my grandparents said. I know what they wanted," she explained, sitting in her office sipping her morning coffee.
The question is not only whether she can convince her own neighbors. It's whether Alaskans, with the signs of climate change all around them, are ready to make some tough choices.
‘I was in over my head’
When Itta arrived for her first day of work as tribal administrator in January 2012, her new boss was on the phone, discussing whether the tribe had submitted the proper paperwork to receive federal funding.
"I've got a new administrator, I'll let her talk to you," the tribal president said, before handing over the phone and walking out.
"That's how she left me in charge," Itta recalled. "I thought to myself, 'What is my job?' It was a mess, papers everywhere. . . . I was in over my head."
But Itta - newly divorced and supporting four kids between the ages of 2 and 12 - was just happy to have a paying job.
Five weeks later, Repsol North America, a Spanish oil and gas company, suffered a blowout at its well 18 miles outside of Nuiqsut. Roughly 42,000 gallons of drilling mud billowed across the tundra, and Itta started calling state and federal authorities to find out whether the town needed to evacuate.
No one had an answer. Soon, several villagers began complaining of respiratory ailments. Itta discovered that the network of air monitors operated by ConocoPhillips - the nation's third-largest oil company - had been shut down for routine maintenance.
"And that's when we found out, you know, it's being controlled by the oil industry," Itta said.
ConocoPhillips, whose nearby operations underpin Nuiqsut's economy, ranks as Alaska's largest crude oil producer and its largest exploration lease owner. It produces 189,000 barrels of oil and gas a day on 1.7 million acres throughout the North Slope.
A state investigation concluded it was "highly unlikely" residents were exposed to gas from a blowout so far away, and a Repsol official said it "acted responsibly and in good faith" after the incident.
But Itta's youngest child has asthma, and when he was hospitalized for the first time a few months later, she blamed the blowout.
This summer, Itta installed monitors donated by an Anchorage-based air toxics group so that Nuiqsut no longer needs to rely on ConocoPhillips's reporting.
A lot of people have called her an environmentalist, and an activist, but she doesn't see herself that way.
"My own father called me a tree-hugger," she noted. " 'Father,' I said, 'We don't have trees to hug up here.' "
Her hair pulled into a bun, with tendrils escaping, Itta reflected on what has been her hardest year yet. She was wearing a hand-stitched whaling crew kuspuk - a pullover with stars and burgundy piping around its front pocket.
Nearly half of the town’s ice cellars, which are dug into the permafrost to preserve whale meat and wild game, had to be abandoned because they were no longer cold enough.
Steps leading to village homes began to sink, leaving stairs dangerously askew.
And in early spring, she had to dispatch members of the tribal youth council to rescue Lydia Sovalik's wooden boat from the softening ground.
Sovalik, a 77-year-old village elder, catches and dries broad whitefish by the Colville River, hanging thick, pink-hued slabs on rafters near the site of a trading post where her nomadic ancestors used to barter for Siberian goods. Escalating rains and disintegrating permafrost were eating away at the ground beneath her wooden cabins, having already claimed her dock.
ConocoPhillips stepped in to help. A team arrived by helicopter last November, when the cabins were frozen to the ground, jacked them up and placed them on skids. Five months later, the group returned with a front loader and slid the cabins 100 feet across the snow.
"Conoco moved that house," Sovalik said during an interview, displaying a childhood photo of herself standing in front of it with a fierce gaze, her neck cloaked in the warmth of wolverine fur.
A symbiotic relationship
Oil built Itta’s village.
In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act gave the state's indigenous community $963 million and ownership of 44 million acres. In exchange, Alaska Natives relinquished all other land claims.
The settlement money was distributed among more than 200 regional and village corporations, including the Kuukpik Corporation, made up of the people who resettled Nuiqsut in 1973. Each of them received 100 shares.
As that money began to run out in the 1990s, corporation board members like Itta's father negotiated with oil executives for a share of the royalties from nearby drilling - "a piece of the rock," as the group's CEO, Lanston Chinn, put it.
In 2000, when oil production began at Conoco’s nearby Alpine project the Kuukpik Corporation offered its share of royalties as collateral to banks, securing loans that financed infrastructure projects.
In 2002, the funding gave the town running water and sewers.
In 2009, Conoco began supplying natural gas to the village at a deep discount. Residents could heat their homes year-round for just $25 a month.
With cheaper energy came other amenities, like washer-dryers and gas ovens.
Today, the oil money has left Nuiqsut relatively well off. Over the past two decades, annual dividends for full Kuukpik Corporation shareholders have ballooned from $1,000 to $31,000. The median household income is $84,464, according to the state - well above the national average of $62,000.
Because many essentials must be flown in, life is more expensive here. In Nuiqsut's sole grocery store, a loaf of bread was recently on sale for $8.49, and a carton of Quaker Oats cost $13.59. Still, only 22 people in Nuiqsut live below the poverty line, and the median home value is nearly $106,000.
But as oil production and climate change have reshaped life in Nuiqsut, the symbiotic relationship between the Alaska Natives and ConocoPhillips has begun to fray.
The fall whaling season, one of the most important cultural traditions on Alaska’s North Slope, was nearly derailed by warmer waters that shifted the migration patterns of bowhead whales. Nuiqsut whaling crews caught three bowhead in two days at the end of August, but then the animals swam farther offshore.
The town's most accomplished hunter, Thomas "Kupa" Napageak, had his crew sail more than 30 miles in every direction but failed to spot any more prey.
Whalers in the coastal city of Utqiagvik had it even worse. They got a single bowhead on Nov. 16, the latest recorded catch in at least half a century.
The warmer climate is also taking its toll on the caribou. The Teshekpuk caribou herd, which numbered nearly 69,000 in 2008, declined more than 40% by 2013 according to state data. It has begun to repopulate but has yet to recover fully.
"I think climate change had a big effect on those caribou numbers," said Geoff Carroll, a retired state biologist who helped oversee 56,000 square miles of the North Slope. "If there's not enough food around, they're obviously not going to survive."
The herd's health is critical to Nuiqsut, where residents get half their food through hunting. The caribou take refuge along with hundreds of thousands of migratory birds at Teshekpuk Lake, which lies nearly 70 miles west and is now being eyed for drilling.
Climate change is not something people discuss much in Nuiqsut. Instead of talking about greenhouse gas emissions and the astonishing rate of local warming, Itta and other opponents of more oil development emphasize drilling's impact on the animals they hunt, and by extension, their cultural identity.
For her brother, Bryan Nukapigak, hunting is still the reason for living here. On a recent afternoon, he netted seven ptarmigan and hung the birds outside his front door, their bodies displaying white winter coats.
Nukapigak went to work on oil field projects straight out of high school. Now 40, he said he is worried about the effect of drilling on hunting grounds: "We're being surrounded."
Napageak, the whaling captain, was Nuiqsut's mayor for nine years. The pelts of three grizzlies and several caribou slung over his porch railing leave little doubt about the 36-year-old's skill as a marksman. But Napageak, 36, uses oil company roads to access hunting grounds, and sees nearby fossil fuel extraction as an asset.
"Our school's provided, our school system, our hospital's provided. The facilities are modern here. We need it," Napageak said. "We pay 25 dollars for our natural gas, which is 10 times better than paying what we would otherwise pay. That's money in my pocket."
Still, he said that things are changing in unsettling ways. Lately, some of the broad whitefish he catches have had an odd mold growing in patches on their scales, which he attributes to warmer waters.
Taking on big oil
Even the oil companies are being affected by the rising temperatures. Several, including ConocoPhillips, have begun to bury long metal tubes filled with refrigerants - sometimes the length of a football field. The liquid inside these tubes, known as thermosiphons, draws heat away from the permafrost so that it remains rigid enough to support equipment.
Ed Yarmak, chief engineer for the Anchorage-based firm Arctic Foundations, installs these systems for nearly every oil company operating on the North Slope. His projects for ConocoPhillips are twice as big as the ones he did two decades ago.
Despite clear evidence of climate impacts, state and industry officials are eager to keep drilling.
"The demand is going to remain for the development of oil and gas for the next 30 to 40 years," said Kara Moriarty, president of Alaska Oil and Gas Association. "The demand isn't going to go away. It's without a doubt, right or wrong, the basis of Alaska's economy."
Scientists project that the world would have to cut its carbon emissions 45% by 2030 to stand a chance of keeping total global temperatures from rising more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) above preindustrial levels. Already, The Post has found that roughly 10 percent of the globe has already warmed by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).
Although Alaska accounts for just 3.1 percent of U.S. oil production - compared with 25 percent in 1988 - fossil fuels are still the state’s economic engine. Revenue from the petroleum industry’s current and past operations makes up nearly 66 percent of the state budget. The North Slope Borough - the municipal government with jurisdiction over Nuiqsut and other Arctic villages - relies on oil and gas taxes for 90 percent of its funding.
In 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey announced that Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve could hold 8.7 billion barrels of undiscovered oil. At roughly 23 million acres, the reserve is the nation’s largest piece of public land and its biggest stretch of unprotected wilderness.
The Trump administration is now drafting a proposal that could allow drilling in areas that have been long off limits, and state officials said they think this winter will bring the busiest exploration season on the North Slope in two decades.
ConocoPhillips estimated it and other companies will invest $11 billion on its existing Alaska assets over the next decade, and another $5 billion on a new project that it calls Willow.
Last year, the firm outlined an exploration plan that calls for nearly 70 miles of ice roads, and up to 23 ice pads to support six exploratory wells. The Trump administration determined that this flurry of activity on the federal reserve would have no "significant impact" on wildlife. But five environmental groups are challenging that in a lawsuit that raises questions about how further drilling will affect the Teshekpuk caribou herd.
Though oil is Nuiqsut's economic lifeblood, Itta asked the tribal council in February to join the lawsuit. The council agreed - in part, Itta said, because members felt they lacked a voice in decisions made in Washington.
"They're for profit, for development," Itta said. "They come here, they get our input, and we feel like it doesn't go anywhere."
Officials from the administration and ConocoPhillips declined to comment on the litigation, which is ongoing. But during a spring shareholders meeting in Houston, ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance defended his firm’s record.
"I think you'll see what we've done has been responsible and done with the environment in mind," Lance said, "and done collaboratively with the owners and the heritage of the land."
Joe Balash, a former Interior Department official who oversaw the drilling plan for the reserve, said he is well aware of how fast Alaska is warming. But "I reject the idea that Alaska should impoverish itself just to make somebody feel good or better about, you know, the situation," he said in an interview before leaving to join Oil Search, a firm expanding operations on the North Slope.
"Alaska is not a snow globe, right? Some people want to just shake it up and put it up on their shelf, and 'Ooh, that's a pretty thing up there,' " he said.
Itta’s office now resembles a war room. Tacked-up maps show oil leasing plans, as well as new lakes dotting the landscape. The heart of Alaska’s oil patch has become contested territory.
The prospect of losing keeps her up at night. She thinks about what she learned watching her father, the politician, and her grandparents. "I think about the whole situation, what's there and what's not."
She does not have an easy answer for what would sustain the town economically if the petroleum industry scaled back operations. She mentions a hardware store or an auto shop. Instead, she faults oil development for not providing more benefits.
"There is a lot that the village needs that, well, should have been put in place already, but hasn't really gotten," she said. "Just a bunch of pads, roads and pipelines."
In town, opinion on the lawsuit is split, even among Itta's own family.
Itta's 28-year-old cousin, Raymond Ipalook, sits on the village council and supports the lawsuit. But in June, he got a job overseeing capital projects in town financed by the North Slope Borough - and by extension, oil and gas companies.
"It's a conundrum," said Ipalook, who needed the job to support his young son. "All I understand right now is we live in a monetary economy, and we get paid for the work we do."
Itta's father, Joseph Nukapigak, is president of the tribal corporation that relies on oil revenue.
This month, at a North Slope Borough Assembly meeting, he argued in favor of a drilling project seven miles northeast of Nuiqsut on the grounds that the firm - Oil Search - had made key concessions and villagers would reap revenue from the arrangement.
"We're going to continue to see development whether we like it or not, as long as the federal government and the state of Alaska keep opening up land for leasing to the oil companies," he said. "But by working together, everything is possible."
And Itta's uncle, Edward Nukapigak, argues that younger residents are being manipulated by outside "environmental groups."
"The winter exploration and development phase is not impacting our wildlife. There's thousands of caribou out there right now," Nukapigak said, gesturing out the window from his home, which is heated by cheap natural gas supplied by ConocoPhillips.
A vote on the future
On Oct. 19, Itta dressed in the traditional kuspuk of her family's whaling crew and took her place in Fairbanks at the Alaska Federation of Natives's annual meeting.
More than a thousand tribal delegates gathered in an arena, seated according to their region, in a city whose air quality reached hazardous levels in July as wildfires raged nearby.
Two teenage girls offered a resolution calling on the delegates to declare a “climate change state of emergency.” The proposal did not mention fossil fuels once, but everyone knew they were taking aim at oil and gas companies in Alaska.
"These companies up north are only thinking about economic growth. And we need to be thinking about our futures, too," said Nanieezh Peter, 15, wearing a moose hide vest beaded by her aunt as she addressed a dais filled with elders. "And it should only be our futures that we are worried about right now, because it is urgent, and it is now."
As the resolution was debated, the classic lines were drawn. If they voted against fossil fuel expansion, their oil revenue could disappear. If they did not vote against it, their entire way of life could disappear.
"Before we say, 'You know what, we agree with all the environmentalists, to keep our oil in the ground, we're going to suffer economically,' let's be very careful," warned Crawford Patkotak, board chair of the state's most profitable tribal corporation.
Patkotak proposed to amend the resolution to support continued oil and gas extraction. Peter rejected that idea.
"Those coal and oil are, um, one of the number one causes of climate change," she said.
Peter's ally, Quannah Chasing Horse Potts, spoke up, fighting back tears.
"We are not environmentalists. And our scientists are telling us what is happening on this Earth," said Potts, 17. "We are indigenous youth, and we do not want to stop our way of life. That's why we're here. We're not here to fight against you, we're here to fight with you."
"You know with drilling, and drilling and tearing apart our Earth, that is not who we are. We protect our earth, we protect our animals and our way of life."
Others chimed in to support the two girls.
One man noted that "polar bears are mating with brown bears."
Another said his village was being moved 100 miles and that "the sea is eating my house."
A third quoted an elder who had said earlier that day: "You take care of the land, the land will take care of you."
The girls' proposal was overwhelmingly approved.
Itta, who had brought three of Nuiqsut’s tribal youth council members to the conference, said she understood why teenagers were challenging their elders. “I think, you know, the fear of their future is what’s allowing them to be able to speak up.”
Still, she wondered: "Well, what does it mean now?"
On Nov. 5, she got her answer.
Scrolling through a friend’s Facebook page, she saw that the federal Bureau of Land Management planned to auction off drilling rights to nearly 4 million acres in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve - more than double the amount of land leased in the previous decade. On Dec. 11, the bureau leased 1 million acres for just under $11.3 million.
She remembered her grandparents' tales of hunts, and how they had traded furs for flour and coffee. She thought about what sort of prey would be available if a new airstrip, pipelines and a processing facility sprang up on the tundra.
"It broke my heart, and I silently cried when I got home."
Itta looked out her kitchen window, to the south. She could see Nuiqsut's homes, its school and the office she would return to the next day.
“I have a lot of hope. And I have a lot of faith,” she said. “I just think about what my grandma said, when she was alive. I tell myself, I am not going to be defeated.”
• • •