July 9, 2009 – At Sea, 67 57N 166 57W
by Herb McCormick and Mark Schrader
(July 9): In terms of facts and numbers, since yesterday’s crew log it’s been a day of firsts on Ocean Watch. Though conditions have been brisk and challenging, we’ve enjoyed our best sailing of the voyage thus far, and recorded our fastest speed (12.7 knots). After weeks of traveling to gain the far, left-hand corner of Alaska, we’ve reached the westernmost point of the entire voyage and turned east. And we crossed into the Arctic Circle, where by mid-afternoon we were experiencing balmy sea and air temperatures dropping into the 30s (Fahrenheit).
With the exception of the weather report, those were the high points. Here were the low:
Pushing the navigational envelope to visit a remote settlement that in many ways signifies Ground Zero for countless native Alaskans in the relentless surge of climate change, for the first time on the voyage we put Ocean
|Above, the track Ocean Watch took in its unsuccessful attempt to land near Shishmaref.|
Watch briefly aground on a sandy spit in the dead of night on a lee shore, as dangerous a combination as any sailor will ever see. And though we didn’t make it ashore, we caught a glimpse of Shishmaref, a place a BBC reporter earlier this week described thusly: “It is thought to be the most extreme example of global warming on the planet.”
We didn’t detour to Shishmaref because it’s a boomtown. In fact, Shishmaref is a town going boom.
A Dramatic Evening
Even to Alaskans, Shishmaref is hardly a household word. But Ocean Watch crewmember David Thoreson knew about the distant village, its ongoing plight, and the greater global ramifications of what’s happening on its very localized scale. He’d been urging us, if the opportunity presented itself, to come and have a look for ourselves, and after we transited the Bering Strait yesterday, skipper Mark Schrader decided to try and pay a call. Conditions were far from ideal, but we’re ahead of our deadline to reach Barrow, so time was not an issue. It turned out to be the only thing that wasn’t one.
We approached the low barrier island – a few miles long but less than a quarter mile wide – just after midnight. The sea and sky were a uniform shade of gray, but it never gets truly dark at this latitude, something that would play in our favor. We could see four or five people on the main drag watching our approach – it had to be an
|Shishmaref many years before the northern shore of the island started crumbling.|
extremely rare occurrence – and an ATV scurrying back and forth along the beach, like an agitated puppy. We’ll let the skipper, from his own notes on what happened next, pick up the narrative:
“Rather than setting a direct course for Pt. Hope some 150 nautical miles north from the Bering Strait, we decided to take a short side trip to the community of Shishmaref on the very exposed northwest coast of the Seward Peninsula. Shishmaref has been in the news numerous times because the town is literally falling into the ocean. Warm weather and oceans here means less ice; less ice exposes the shoreline to wave action; and wave action erodes beaches and cliffs. Shishmaref’s beaches and cliffs are giving way. Houses are falling into the ocean.
“Our charts showed shallow but navigable depths on the north and northwest sides of the island community – depths on the order of 12-20 feet. Ocean Watch needs around nine. Around midnight I called Shishmaref on the VHF looking for some local knowledge to help direct us to a sheltered area on the east side of the island, and to get a ‘read’ from a local on what the real depths might be (nothing indicated on our chart). I was surprised when
|The voice on the radio offered to come out in his boat and guide us in.|
someone answered. The voice on the other end of the radio offered to come out in his boat and guide us in – quite a nice thing to do in the middle of the night in freezing, windy conditions. He arrived, led us toward an opening that looked problematic, which was confirmed by our depth readings of 12′, 11′, 10′… We stopped, backtracked a little and turned around. Our guide suggested we try the other end of the island, some six miles away.
“As we closed on this invisible channel the same thing happened, only faster. In a 2-foot sea and shallow water OW hit a sandy bottom, several times before (helmsman) Dave Logan’s quick actions got us turned away from the non-existent channel. With a few more heart-stopping thumps he managed to slowly edge us to deeper water. Our guide wanted us to give it another try – we declined, set a course for Pt. Hope (aptly named), hoisted sail and left Shishmaref to our collective imaginations.
“A quick check of bilges, pumps, rig and people confirmed no visible damage to OW or crew. The experience did elevate the heart issues of all involved – falling asleep during the next watch wasn’t an issue.”
Even from afar, the crumbling edifices of Shishmaref left a lasting impression. BBC correspondent David Willis, however, paid a recent visit to Shishmaref and had a walk through the village. “Houses the Eskimos have occupied for generations are now wilting and buckled,” he wrote. “Some have fallen into the sea. Not only is the earth crumbling underfoot, but the waves are rising ominously all around.”
It’s this double barrel combination – rising seas and melting tundra – that is causing the ground on which Shishmaref was built, over 400 years ago, to literally disappear. Over the last thirty years temperatures have risen steadily in the Arctic, much more so here than on the rest of the planet, and the permafrost is thawing. Combined with the northerly winter gales, particularly at times of high tidal surge, the northern shore of Shishmaref is crumbling and being claimed by the sea. Some locals estimate 3-5 feet of erosion each year, though others guess the figure is close to 10 feet.
Either way, it’s semantics. Shishmaref is disappearing.
“The waves are larger because there is no sea ice to diminish their intensity, slamming against the west and northern shores of Alaska, causing severe storm-driven coastal erosion,” writes Patricia Cochran, the executive director of the Alaska Native Science Commission. “Permafrost is melting all over Alaska as a result of rising temperature, causing land underneath many villages to subside and softening the soil on riverbanks like the mighty Yukon.”
Cochran goes on to lodge what can only be described as a legitimate complaint. The indigenous populations are being forced to adapt while the rest of the world rests idle.
The BBC’s Willis quotes Professor Gunter Weller, the director of the University of Alaska’s Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research, on several points. “Shishmaref is an indication of what to expect in the future in other parts of the world,” said Weller. “In that respect it is the canary in the coalmine.” Willis concludes his piece on an ominous note, calling “the people of Shishmaref the first refugees of global warming.”
From the shallow bay, we could see evidence that the people of Shishmaref have waged a serious battle with the forces of nature, specifically with the rugged sea wall they erected in an attempt to fortify the very foundation of their town, and their life. But now, it appears, they’ve thrown in their cards, and have ceased the campaign they know they can’t win. The Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition (SERC) has launched a website (http://www.shishmarefrelocation.com) outlining their next step: “The community has determined that the only viable solution is to relocate…off the island to a nearby mainland location that is accessible to the sea, suitable for the subsistence lifestyle, and preserves the culture and integrity of the community.” You can visit their site for more information and ways you can help.
Aboard Ocean Watch, once the adrenaline had stopped pumping, as we sailed away from Shishmaref we couldn’t help glancing over our shoulders. It’s a sight we’ll never again see. For in all likelihood, we won’t pass this way again. And even if we do, the town called Shishmaref won’t be here, anyway.
- Herb McCormick and Mark Schrader with photographs by David Thoreson
To add a comment to this story click on the comment link below the post title. Please direct your messages for the crew to firstname.lastname@example.org instead of submitting them here. Thanks for following the Around the Americas Expedition.