Tag Archives: permafrost

Newtok Power

The village of Newtok, Alaska

Some regular readers may remember that I was out in the village of Newtok in February. I truly enjoyed my time there, and have great memories of the area, but especially the people.

Newtok is currently in the middle of a move. The village is under siege from the very water that gives it life. Due to the warming of the Arctic, ground is giving way, and Newtok is getting it from every direction. On one hand, the river is laying claim to huge chunks of land, taking homes with the shoreline. On the other hand, the ground is giving way to the melting permafrost, and water is filling in the gaps. In February, approximately one third of the population had moved across the river to the new location of Mertarvik, but it is going to be a long and complicated process.

Newtok made the news again this past week, when word made it around Alaska, that the generator that powers the village broke down, leaving the residents without power for an entire month. A month. In an age when most of us think about power very briefly, when we flip a switch or pay the electric bill, it’s good to remember that not everyone lives in such a situation.


Looking at the village from the air in the summer, it’s an entirely different world than when I was there in February. The contrast is stunning, so I thought I’d share a few more “winter” pictures of my time in Newtok.

Newtok on my flight in.

Walking the village of Newtok; Camera: Widelux

Newtok arrival

Mertarvik

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The streets of Mertarvik, Alaska

We needed a ride across the Ninglick River to the new townsite of Mertarvik.  So the word went out, and by morning we had a couple of offers of snow machine rides.  I also had received an offer to guide us the nine miles across by foot.  Of our little troupe, I was the only one who was intrigued by this, although I had one guy who said, “If you’re walking to Mertarvik, I sure as hell won’t let you be the only one!”  In the end, lack of time overcame intense desire, and I hitched a ride on the back of a snow machine.

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The snow machine trail back to Newtok

Thirty minutes later, I was dropped off at the Tundra View Lodge.  Within fifteen minutes my partner in crime arrived, and we set off to explore the new location for Newtok.

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The Tundra View Lodge

People started to move across to Mertarvik from Newtok in October of last year.  First in line were the people who were displaced or very soon to be displaced, either by the melting permafrost or the river erosion.  Approximately twenty-two homes have been completed in Mertarvik, along with an evacuation center that currently houses the school.

In the evacuation center, I talked with an elder on the move from her traditional home.  She told me that she had cried for weeks leading up to the move, and the first few days in the new location.  But after a week or so in Mertarvik, she no longer wanted to go back to Newtok.  This was home now, and it was time to move forward.  The upcoming weekend had an area wide basketball tournament at the Newtok gym, the elder confessed to me that her granddaughter was playing, but she didn’t even want to cross the river for that!

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Toksook Bay traveling basketball team

Since the planes were not flying between the villages due to high winds, the basketball teams from around Nelson Island headed over to Newtok by snow machine.  I believe this is the Toksook Bay team, as they took a break on the edge of Mertarvik, before taking on the final nine miles to Newtok.  Toksook Bay is approximately 59 miles, as the caribou plods, from Newtok.

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Mertarvik, looking back across the river towards Newtok

The move across the Ninglick River has been 20 years in the making for the villagers of Newtok.  A lot of challenges remain, and the move for the remaining people of the village will still be a long and slow process, but the residents here are a hardy bunch.


Images of Newtok

Sticking the landing:

Newtok, Alaska: That wasn’t a landing, as much as it was an arrival.

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When we landed in Newtok, the little airstrip was a hive of activity.  Two small planes were parked at one end of the runway, with people, gear and supplies being quickly unloaded in the -20F degree air.  Two men with four wheelers offered us rides on the back to the heart of the village: The School.

In the summer, Newtok is a village of boardwalks.  The entire village is sinking into the tundra, with the melting of the permafrost, and many of the boardwalks will be under water when break up arrives.

Today though, the ground is frozen firm, and the village is encased in snow.

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The Yup’ik village of Newtok, which roughly translates to “rustling of grass”, first saw a permanent settlement in 1949, although the ancestors of the residents have lived in the area for over 2000 years.  By 1958, the BIA had built a school.  The location was determined because it was the farthest up river that barges could bring in supplies.

The Ninglick River has been taking dozens of feet of shoreline annually by erosion, leaving much of Newtok balancing precariously.  A new location for the village has been staked out 9 miles away at Mertarvik, which roughly translates as “good water” from Yup’ik.  Approximately one third of the village moved across the river onto higher ground this past autumn.

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The church of Newtok

The church was empty, as the priest travels from village to village.  The sunset is glowing through the windows on the opposite side.

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Go Jaegers!

We spent a lot of time in the school, as it acted as a community center for the village.  Everyone seemed to go through the school at some point.  The teachers, administration, and students were all very welcoming, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction.

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Bear, aka Dimitri

This little guy became our constant companion and guide.  Bear would see us out walking from across the village, and he’d come running for us at a gallop.  We often had a pack of village dogs following us, and competing for our attention when we were out & about.  Like all the residents of Newtok, they were incredibly gracious hosts.

 

 


Methane Study


Katey Walter Anthony & a member of her methane hunting team, with high tech tools

I was fortunate enough to join a group from the University of Alaska – Fairbanks, when they toured an Interior Alaska lake, as a part of their ongoing study of methane.

With Alaska seeing the melting of its permafrost, the organic material that has been locked in the frozen ground for thousands of years, is now being released in the form of methane gas. Katey Walter Anthony, and her team, have been studying lakes throughout Interior Alaska for years, in order to get a better understanding of this transfer.

HBO was in town, with a group from Oslo, Norway, making a documentary. We all joined the fine folks from UAF out on some local lakes. Methane is being released year round, but in winter it is trapped under the ice. The ice often shows the tell tale signs of methane release: whether in the form of bubbles in the ice, or a thinning of the ice where the methane rises from the lake bed. An ice fishing chisel and torch can make for an interesting day out on an Alaskan lake.

Warning: Do not try this without the professionals from UAF!

Lakes all across the arctic are releasing methane at an astonishing rate.

Photos courtesy of Nicholas Hasson, UAF Geophysical Institute