Alaska’s known for its outlandish characters and Joe Whitcom is one of them.
A Boston native, Whitcom lives in Dillingham, a one-grocery town on Bristol Bay that owes its existence to the salmon caught by native Alaskans and processed by foreign workers flown in for the seasonal work. Dillingham is also one of 184 Alaska native communities threatened by erosion and flooding caused by warming.
Whitcom’s two-story home is on a bluff with a waterfront view that would cost millions in California. Whitcom’s wife runs a garden nursery on the land, and he keeps tools, sheds and even junked cars from his days as a mechanic. But the bluff has shrunk by 100 feet in 20 years. “In another 10 years it’s going to be at our back door,” he says of the cliff’s edge.
Having collected dozens of junkers over the years, Whitcom tried to shore up the bluff by dumping 100 cars and other heavy material over the side.
The heap of steel seemed to be working until September 2005, when a storm battered Dillingham with fierce waves and ripped apart the metal barrier, leaving the old cars strewn over the waterfront below the bluff.
Moving entire towns
Whitcom’s situation is a microcosm of a bigger picture. At least three villages farther north might have to move within 15 years at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
Sea ice has armored the state's coast for hundreds of years, but it's receding at ever faster rates because of warming, leaving the land behind it more and more vulnerable to storms, says Dave Atkinson, a University of Alaska-Fairbanks researcher.
Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo town in northwest Alaska about a quarter mile wide by three miles long, is buffeted by about three ferocious storms a year. But with nothing left but “slush ice” to protect it, the town of 650 loses 20 feet of shoreline with each battering, says Mayor Stanley Tocktoo.
The Corps says Shishmaref could try stabilizing its shores with manmade barriers, but there’s no guarantee they would hold up. The more drastic option — moving the town — would cost between $100 million to $200 million.
Multiply that cost by all of the villages across the state that are battling erosion, and the solving the problem becomes virtually unimaginable.