Coastal erosion claims Alaskan burials

Warming temperatures in the polar region are threatening indigenous communities as ancestral land is claimed by the Arctic Ocean. Lori Townsend reports from Alaska.

On a cold, overcast summer day at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, the wind is sharp as archeologists Anne Jenson and Laura Thomas strap gear to their snowmobiles. Alaska’s Point Barrow or Nuvuk, as it is known locally, is the farthest point on the North American continent. For the past three summers, Jenson and Thomas have supervised the careful excavation and repatriation of old burials, moving them from the fast-eroding area near the Point to a new cemetery further inland.

Across a gravel road and over an earth berm, which is annually set in place to slow the relentless advance of the Arctic Ocean, sits the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium (BASC) and the Naval Arctic Research Lab (NARL). Jenson and Thomas use the lab to identify and catalogue the remains before moving them to higher ground in the predominantly Inupiaq community of Barrow. The Inupiaq are an Alaska Native or Eskimo people, who for thousands of years have thrived in the extreme climate high above the Arctic Circle.

Thomas squints against the hazy glare and points toward our destination. “Right now, we’re standing out at the NARL-BASC facility and we’re headed due north about 8 miles [13 kilometres] from this point,” she says, her breath visible in the arctic air. The landscape is like a vast, colourless desert. Scanning the horizon of ice and white sky, I feel there could be travel safety issues. I ask: “Who did you say our bear guard was?”

Our guard is Perry Anashugak, a lanky Inupiaq man with dark skin weathered from years of cold, dry wind. “In the summer we have upwards of 15 to 20 people out at the Point working,” says Thomas. “We always say we’re so focused on the ground, a polar bear could be sitting beside us and we wouldn’t know it until the bear wanted lunch. Perry keeps us all safe.”

We jump on our snowmobiles and follow a rough, 30-minute trail along the shore ice to the Point. Anashugak holds his shotgun and stands on the running boards of the lead snowmobile, slowing often to scan the horizon, watching for polar bears in a world of perfect, white cover.

Point Barrow is where the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, both portions of the Arctic Ocean, converge. For centuries Inupiaq people have lived and hunted these waters. But walking toward the digging areas, it is easy to see why the Point is eroding so quickly. Between patches of snow, the shore is made up of thick, loose gravel.

“What’s happening now is the currents are shifting and changing,” says Thomas. “So the Point, over here, is being eaten from the North – from the Beaufort side; and during the fall storms, everything is moving down towards Plover Point.”

Plover Point, to the east, is named after a Navy supply vessel that spent two winters in the mid-nineteenth century waiting – in vain as it turned out – for the arrival of British explorer Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the Northwest Passage. Recorded in the captain’s journals, says Jenson, was that local Inupiaq had said their ancestors once occupied a village site around a mile and a half further out to sea.

“They had severe erosion, so they moved the village to the 1850 location, which is now out in the Arctic Ocean.” Jenson explains that erosion continued to force the community inland, eventually placing some of the village over burial grounds. While the ship’s journals and local historians confirm that this coastal community has long faced natural erosion, today’s climatic conditions appear to be accelerating the process.

Global warming’s ground zero

It’s no secret that Alaska is warming up fast, due – in some part – to the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Temperatures in Alaska over the past half-century have risen 1 to 3 degrees Celsius above the historical average. As air and sea surface temperatures rise, the Arctic’s protective blanket of ice is receding at an unprecedented rate. The National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, reported earlier this month that there was less sea ice in the Arctic than ever before on record. And without ice to shield its gravel shores, coastal communities like Point Barrow are left vulnerable to the harsh wind and waves of the Arctic Ocean.

Coastal erosion is not only threatening coastal villages in the northwest, but it is also shortening the season for oil and gas exploration in Alaska. The Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that oversees natural resources on millions of acres of land across the US, is currently scrambling to reclaim old US Geological Survey (USGS) exploratory oil wells in the area before the sea engulfs them and releases toxic drilling waste into the water. The same area contains numerous fresh water swamps and lakes, critical habitat for molting geese and a major feeding and resting place for millions of migratory waterfowl. A recent USGS mapping project found that in the past fifty years coastal erosion had doubled along a 113-kilometre segment of Alaska’s Arctic coastline.

Race against a warming planet

Jenson says in just the last five years at Point Barrow, they have lost at least 50 metres of the burial area. In the late 1990s, Jenson went to investigate a report of human remains sticking out of the eroded beach edge. As the bluff collapsed and dense fog curled in around them, Jenson and local cultural preservationist Jenny Brower hurried to document and excavate the remains.

What they found surprised them.

“We were almost done,” Jenson recalls. “We decided to go a little bit further because we had the feet, but we didn’t have the toes. Turns out they had eroded or decayed, but we stumbled on the grave goods that were all down by the feet, and when I saw them I said: ‘Jenny, this is really old. This is not 300 years old – this is probably closer to 1,000.”

The grave goods contained a harpoon point that at one time had been used for killing whales or walruses, and dated to between 820 and 1020 AD. While the archeologists waited for the grant-money and permission they needed to move the graves to higher ground, they continued to monitor the eroding coastline, observing increasing damage as the pack ice moved farther offshore each season and the open water allowed greater storm intensity to carve away at the beach.

Much has been lost, says Jenson. “Even in the ‘60s, there was an entire village of sod houses out here, and that’s all gone. There’s nothing holding it together, so when the ocean gets going, it just goes. The last couple of years it’s melting back further and faster. Instead of 50 or 100 miles [80 or 160 kilometres] of open water, you have 200 miles [320 kilometres] open. It seems to be eroding faster than it was.”

The Inupiaq people will never know how many ancestors have been washed away, and what artifacts have been lost that could have filled in missing parts of their history. This summer, Jenson and Thomas will continue the work of moving the remaining graves as the Eskimo people of the North Slope confront another element of rapid change they did not create, but are helpless to stop.

Lori Townsend is a reporter and host for Alaska Public Radio. Her story on Point Barrow’s endangered burials first aired on APRN’s Alaska News Nightly.