Hamlet in Canada's North Slowly Erodes

By DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post, Saturday 13 September 2003; Page A14

Arctic Community Blames Global Warming as Permafrost Starts to Melt and Shoreline Dissolves

TUKTOYAKTUK, Northwest Territories—Gordon Anaviak lives in a house by the deep, black, cold Beaufort Sea, a sea that is eating away at the shoreline and causing the ground to melt.

Anaviak, 72, a fisherman, looks out his window at the waves and is worried. With each wave, he knows the sea is taking away a little more of Tuktoyaktuk, until one day this hamlet may dissolve like salt in water.

Nobody knows for certain why the sea is eroding this spit of land, exposing the permafrost upon which Tuktoyaktuk, a town of just less than 1,000 people, is built. But Anaviak, an elder of the Inuvialuit community, was born on the land and has his own theory. It boils down to global warming.

Even as he apologizes for his lack of formal education, he rises from his sofa and pulls a book off of a shelf. He flips the pages until he comes to a paragraph that explains how explorers here in 1911 recorded temperatures of 60 degrees below zero and a wind chill of minus 110.

The cause of the permafrost melting, Anaviak said, is because we don't get that cold anymore. Under the ground, it don't get too hard nowadays. Just like ice cream. Ice cream is cold, but not hard. You can poke it with a spoon. This is like ice cream.

Scientists who come to this hamlet that sits on the top of Canada at the edge of the Mackenzie Delta and the Beaufort Sea—about 1,400 miles north of Vancouver—are concerned about the rapid erosion and melting of the permafrost layer. The reality is that nature built that spit of land and eventually, maybe not in my lifetime, it will disappear, said Dennis Berry, a community planner for the government of the Northwest Territories.

The combination of climate change, erosion and the slow melting of the permafrost has raised questions about how long people here can continue to live on such unstable ground. The melting of the arctic permafrost, which has disturbed gravesites and unsettled communities in the western Arctic, has prompted an international debate about whether the diminishing Arctic's ice pack is caused by global warming and whether it will bring environmental disaster. Some people say there is no proof of global warming, that the world's weather patterns are cyclical.

Ken Johnson, a planner for an engineering company that has studied Tuktoyaktuk, said, There is some speculation the storms off the Beaufort Sea are created by the decreasing ice pack in the Canadian north. It is creating a larger fetch, or distance of open water, that allows the creation of large waves. Permafrost ground is much more sensitive to storm waves.

Ultimately Mother Nature is going to win, Johnson said. The shoreline will keep diminishing and the ocean will keep advancing on the community. The feasible option is to relocate. It's feasible, but not practical.

Some government studies have concluded that it would be more cost-effective to move the town inland, but some of the elders have refused. They say they were settled here by the government, which ushered them in from their nomadic life on the land and built their houses on this shaky ground. Now some say the territorial government must pay the consequences.

Tuktoyaktuk once was home for about 15 civilian and military employees of the Cold War-era DEW line, or Distant Early Warning line, and was one of 21 radar sites for the North American Air Defense Command. It was replaced by a mostly automated system in the 1990s.

Since 1934, great winds and storms blowing across the Beaufort Sea have encroached on the land, according to a government study. The coast has been eroding at an average of more than six feet a year. Ten years ago, a huge storm broke off more than 42 feet of the shoreline. Tuktoyaktuk officials responded by moving the local school and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police headquarters inland.

Berry said the government has spent millions since it began researching the area 40 years ago, trying to protect Tuktoyaktuk from the sea. There are no plans for the government to move the community now, Berry said. But it is one of the options available. Moving the community is probably the cheapest option, but as we all know people who lived their lives in an area aren't just going to leave their homes.

The territorial government will never go in and say we want to move everybody, Berry said.

The government tried group resettlement before, with poor results. In the 1960s, the government decided that Aklavik, a community about 100 miles southwest of Tuktoyaktuk, was too prone to flooding. The idea was everyone would move to a new community, Berry said. The government built a new town of Inuvik. But the people of Aklavik did not want to move. Now there are two communities: Inuvik and Aklavik, where people live by the slogan: Never say die.

In Tuktoyaktuk, people are trying to come to terms with the tide and live by the unrelenting sea. They laid down sandbags to fight the erosion and the sea picked them up and tossed them like pillowcases. They built a metal fence to block its force and the sea flattened it. They hauled in great slabs of borrowed concrete in a final dare.

Much of the erosion is taking place near the town's graveyard, a lump of land facing the shore with rows of graves marked by white crosses and surrounded by a picket fence. This is always our main concern, along with our assets, the graveyard, said Eddie Dillon, the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk. This may become part of the ocean.

Dillon concedes the power of the elements of nature. There is no way we will stop it totally, Dillon said, pointing at a thin strand of beach. One hundred years ago, there used to be land out there. Now it's depleted almost. Every year, the waves come high. . . . We can delay it. But our grandchildren will probably see this point gone.

Houses are built on pilings or blocks in the community because it is difficult to drill deep into the permafrost, said Calvin Pokiak, assistant land administrator for Inuvialuit Regional Corp.. Houses on pilings are not bolted down, he said, because a strong wind would tear a bolted house apart. If a wind sweeps an unbolted house off its pilings, the hope is the house will end up somewhere else intact.

Pokiak points at great, gray boulders that were hauled to the beach to hold back the ocean. The rocks are trying to protect the harbor and house, he said. I don't know whether the rocks will protect it. Pokiak motions to the houses. The joke is, he said, in the houses over here, you have to sleep with your life jacket on.

Erosion is the topic of conversation at the Hotel Tuk restaurant. Owner Paul Voudrach says people have been talking about the dangers for at least 20 years. You're going to be under water, Voudrach said. I never thought about it but I know the erosion is happening. I think now we are either going to have to move or sink.

Alice Felix, 67, is walking along Beaufort Drive by the shore. The wind is whipping the sea to her west. Huskies are curled in balls. Her 4-year-old grandson is walking south down the road without anyone holding his hand. Grandson, she called. Don't go far.

Felix is adamant that officials must move the town before it is too late. I've lived here since '69. In '69, it was not too bad. There was more land. More beach. Now, no more. The ground seems to be downer and the water is higher. The water is more higher than the land.

When you get older, you are scared of high water and high wind. You alone and nobody helping you. I think how come the high water come so easy. It must be melting slowly, she said, they should move Tuk.

Anaviak says if they move the town, some people won't like it because they will have to travel farther to fish. Not all people here are rich people, he said. We can't eat from the ground unless it's berries. At the store they sell potatoes. We eat the animals, the fish and the ducks and the caribou. Don't nobody buy potatoes.

Anaviak says he is certain of only one thing: Nobody can fight the sea. They can slow it down. If they let it go, it's done by itself. The rough water will eat the beach.