Southwest Alaska community on Bering Sea coast experiences severe flooding

A few buildings seen from above covered with water
An aerial view of the flooding in Kwigillingok on June 24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Igkurak)

Kwigillingok, a community on the Bering Sea coast of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, is used to some flooding during high tides. But in recent years, that flooding has grown more severe, reaching a new threshold last week.

The flooding began Friday morning, as the high tide began rising.

“This is the worst one we’ve seen yet,” said Gary Evon, the environmental coordinator for the Native Village of Kwigillingok.

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Aerial photographs published on Facebook show a majority of the community submerged in water. One photo shows someone rafting around the village using a shovel as a paddle.

The town’s buildings are raised up on pilings, so Evon said that water did not enter any structures. But 6 inches of water covered the ground beneath. Much of the community’s boardwalk was underwater last Thursday, but Evon said that residents have enough walkways to get around the village. On Friday, Evon said that the village was being flooded again with the next high tide.

A person in Kwigillingok paddles through the community while it’s flooded. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Igkurak)

A little flooding is nothing new in Kwigillingok, but what is new is the increased severity of tidal flooding in recent years. Evon said that it’s due to a changing environment.

“With warming climate, melting permafrost and land subsidence,” Evon said.

Global temperatures are rising at an accelerating rate. Temperatures in the Arctic are rising three times as fast as the rest of the world, according to a study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme. The permafrost below Kwigillingok is thawing, causing the land to sink. The lowered elevation makes the land more susceptible to flooding during storms and high tides, and the flooding causes the permafrost to melt even more.

Evon said that the community plans to move a few homes most threatened by erosion and unstable ground, but with the severity of recent floods, Evon said that Kwigillingok is looking at bigger solutions.

“The whole community is starting to think seriously about relocating to higher grounds,” Evon said.

Moving an entire community is as colossal an effort as it sounds like. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has estimated that the cost to relocate Kwigillingok would exceed $100 million.

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