A week before the school year’s start, Kivalina residents report cracks on the sides of the recently built evacuation road which connects the village to the storm refuge site and the school. The transportation officials are planning to visit the village to evaluate the situation at the end of the month.
“The road is settled so drastically and started cracking along the edges,” said Colleen Swan, the interim city administrator in Kivalina. “Which is quite dangerous, I believe, because it’s not very wide, for one thing, and you have a lot of heavy equipment, you have heavy buses coming over that road.”
Danielle Tessen, communication manager with the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, said Alaska DOT&PF Kivalina project team members are aware of the reported cracks along the evacuation road and plan to evaluate the site.
The Kivalina Evacuation Route and School Access Site — which provides residents with a road to a refuge site at the new school in case of a catastrophic storm — was completed in 2021. The road, which is about 7 miles long, has been used to get to the new school in Kivalina, as well as to access fishing and blueberry picking sites more easily, Swan said.
The cracks started to appear as early as last year and became much worse this year, Swan said.
Building on permafrost
To better understand the specific causes — as well as the severity and frequency — of the cracking issue, the DOT team needs to see the situation in person during the site visit, Tessen said.
“The cracking observed in the embankment shoulders is not uncommon in Arctic regions, especially for newly constructed projects,” she said. “This can occur as the new fill material settles and reaches thermal stability over time.”
To assess the damages to the road, the department team plans to work with the Northwest Arctic Borough, which Tessen said maintains it.
“In general, addressing cracks is advisable, as it helps prevent surface water and heat infiltration into the subsurface,” Tessen said. “The mitigation usually involves filling the cracks with gravel. This approach aids in maintaining the structural integrity of the road and minimizing potential impacts from permafrost thaw.”
For now, Swan said the road now needs to be monitored to make sure it doesn’t deteriorate any further.
Swan expressed concern over how quickly the road started cracking and wondered whether all the necessary steps to make the road reliable in the Arctic environment have been taken.
“It’s on wetlands, it’s on permafrost. It’s settled a lot,” she said. “They should have considered that the warming of the Arctic is also a contributing factor.”
Tessen previously told the Sounder that the road was placed high enough to withstand ocean storm surges and river flooding events. The armor stones were placed needed to prevent erosion as well.
“Permafrost was protected by leaving the tundra in place and constructing the road embankment in winter – placing frozen material on top of frozen ground,” Tessen said. “The embankment was also constructed to a minimum 6-foot thickness to provide sufficient insulation over the frozen ground.”
Still, Tessen said that Arctic roads demand consistent maintenance because of the climate and ground conditions. She said that it is possible that the cracks are linked to faster-than-expected permafrost thawing.
Janet Mitchell was driving on the road from berry picking on Aug. 14 when her 10-year-old granddaughter started pointing out the cracks on the road to her.
“She expressed worry and said now she don’t want to go to school,” Mitchell said.
The Kisimġiugtuq School starts on Aug. 22, and many residents, including Swan, have children who will be taking buses daily to get to and from the school to classes, as well as to after-school extra-curriculum activities.
“The time is so limited to fixing this situation that we’re gonna have another bad year,” Swan said.
Last school year, Kivalina experienced several severe storms, with the road getting snowed in and the visibility dropping to zero, she said. The conditions often did not allow the bus drivers to get to school. Students missed many days of school as a result.
“A lot of things went wrong for us this past year and we can’t go through another one. Something needs to be done immediately this summer,” Swan said. “This problem it’s affecting the future of our children as well, not just their safety.”