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When living in Kotzebue, the joke used to be that “this isn’t the end of the earth, but you can see it from here”–and it often felt that way–a place beyond the end of the road, at the end of the north American continent, isolated.  While we lived there, a storm in August 1989 flooded Front Street, destroying the last seaward building along the street, resulting in growing concern about erosion, leading first to placing sandbags and concrete and steel cable mats on the beach, but eventually leading a major effort, now nearly complete, to build a sea wall to protect the town.

New Sea Wall, Front Street, Kotzebue, October 7, 2011

The new sea wall changes the feel of the town–where before the beach along front street was a place where the land and the sea met in a gentle transition, it now feels like the sea is a danger, and the town is pulling back, investing in infrastructure as far away from the sea as possible, building a strong wall to keep the storms at bay.

This morning (November 9, 2011), a storm warning was posted for Western Alaska–including Kotzebue–winds of up to 70 miles per hour, seas of 20 feet, and coastal flooding of 7 to 9 feet–potentially topping the new wall.  This time of year is a bad time for a storm–the sea ice has not yet formed (the ice suppresses the actions of waves), so the waves most likely will smash the shore fast ice, and, depending on the direction of the winds, could drive this ice on shore.   Other villages in Northwest Alaska are also threatened, many of which are less well protected than Kotzebue.   As in all coastal storms, the extent of  damage will most likely depend on the details of the storm–how strong it actually is, the wind direction, and the volume of water driven ashore.

While some argue over the causes of global warming, the data continues to show a long term trend reducing the extent of arctic sea ice, later sea ice formation, and rising sea levels.   Is the sea wall strong enough to protect Kotzebue?  This storm is the first test.

Front Street, October 1990


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