Last Friday morning, Kivalina residents awoke to find that the beach along the airport was eroding away with alarming speed.
In a matter of hours, the surging ocean took a 10-foot chunk out of the bank by the airport, sending city workers rushing to fill large plastic bags called supersacks and put them along the airport beach to stabilize the beach berm.
"It was taking bites, that was what was happening," said town administrator Janet Mitchell. Kivalina was thrust into the spotlight during the recent presidential visit, when President Barack Obama talked about the erosion problems that may be caused by climate change.
Mitchell said the town watched the erosion jump from one area to another, spurred on by high tides and large waves. At the part where the most erosion occurred, about midway down the 3,000-foot runway, the airport's landing strip was still some 36 feet from the beach as of Monday, Mitchell said. But gusting winds could push the seas in again, she said, and cause more damage.
"We have winds right now with gusts up to 30 mph with the waves coming from the west," she said.
Ironically, the storm may actually help bring funding to help keep future surges at bay.
Jason Sakalaskas, a maintenance and operation engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said the events of last week may help bring attention and funding to stabilize the shoreline near the airport.
The town has issued a disaster declaration, which has been submitted to the Northwest Arctic Borough.
Sakalaskas said the department has been trying to get funding to help stabilize the shoreline along the airport for years, but losing some 10 feet in a day might be what it takes to get attention for the project.
"We've had a project nominated for several years, but these kind of incidents give it more weight," he said. "We'll be resubmitting it for funding."
Sakalaskas said the erosion occurred in a scallop pattern, something commonly seen on beaches that has to do with where wave action concentrates. He said the state took photos of the wave action along the coast and had them looked at by coastal engineers only days before the storm surge came in, so they got a pretty good idea why the erosion occurred where it did. He said the erosion could move up and down the coastline, so it is difficult to know where to reinforce the beach until erosion starts to occur.
The plan is likely to use sandbag supersacks, which have been used to repair a section of erosion along the airport's taxiway, he said. That stabilization project was completed in 2005 and is still holding up well.
Mitchell said she hopes something is done, since any effort to move the town seems to be years away and ice that would protect it from the erosion of winter storms is forming later and later each year. Last year, ice that used to form in August in the "good old days" didn't come until late November and December.
"We can't keep doing what we are doing," she said. "The airport is getting too compromised. We need some sort of protection."
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.