In Port Heiden, recent storms exacerbate an old problem

Over the past week, several Bering Sea storms battered Port Heiden’s coast. (Photo courtesy of Jaclyn Christensen)

Several Bering Sea storms have hit the coast of Southwest Alaska hard this past week. For the village of Port Heiden on the Alaska Peninsula, that has meant accelerated erosion, an issue the village has been dealing with for years.

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Trained monitors in the village measured six feet of erosion in some places from the most recent storms. Within the last year, they have measured twenty to one hundred feet of erosion along different sections of their coast line. Jaclyn Christensen is the village brownfield coordinator. She said the shoreline seems to be eroding more quickly than it used to.

“It seems more rapid nowadays because I think we have bigger tides,” Christensen said. “We have a lot more water volume, and we have a lot of pumice in our soil. It’s like tooth decay or a cavity. It eats a lot quicker because it’s porous material, and water could just unearth it so fast and easy. A lot of that is accelerated by the storm.”

It’s a fight Port Heiden has been waging for decades, to stay above water. They started building homes on higher ground away from Meshik, the old village site, in the 1980s. The last person moved out of the old village in 2008.

But the solution is not as simple as abandoning the old town.

First there’s the issue of what to do about the old buildings. Left alone, they would be washed into the sea and the debris will end up on Port Heiden’s beaches. Last year, before the road washed away too much to drive heavy machinery on it, the village deconstructed most of the buildings.

“It’s a very hard thing to do. We’ve gotten a lot of backlash about it because it’s emotional, because it’s letting go of your home that you grew up in,” Christensen said. “But what other alternative do we have? We can’t stop the force of nature, but we can do something about leaving less of a foot print to our ecosystem by not polluting it.”

Then there’s the loss of safe harbor. John Christensen Jr. is the tribal council president and a commercial fisherman.

“Our safe harbor for our boats is down past the old village,” John Christensen Jr. said. “Once the erosion reaches the lake down there. It’ll cut off a line. We won’t have no more road to go down there, so we’re going to have to figure out a different place to park our boats.”

Finally there’s the continued erosion, even in the new town. While the homes where people live now, the village office and the village store are currently on stable ground, to get from the bluffs where the town lies to the beach where barges land and residents subsistence fish, the village has to regularly reconstruct beach access roads with a loader.

More worrisome, erosion is getting to the roads near the school.

“Maybe three years ago there was flooding so bad by the school that the school bus had to take the school kids from the school to the flooded area because there was like a river channel of water on the road and then carry the kids, walk them across the water,” Jaclyn Christensen said. “And then the other school bus was on the other side of the road, and they took the kids from there to their homes.”

Port Heiden’s fuel tank farm was relocated fewer than two years ago due to erosion concerns. But Jaclyn worries that its new position by the school might not keep it safe from erosion for long. Even as the village continues its march inland, she said that there isn’t a lot of talk about why the erosion is happening.

“We don’t really use the word “climate change” around here,” Jaclyn said. “We just know things are changing. We just know high winds are becoming more frequent. We know that bad weather is hanging around a lot longer. I don’t really hear the elders or the local people talk about climate change or ocean acidification, or global warming as much because it seems like a foreign factor that we’ve never really had to understand before.

Whatever the cause, Jaclyn Christensen is optimistic that the community will stay motivated and find solutions.