SEASON TWO | EPISODE ONE
The Water is Wide
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Nick Mott This season of Threshold is underwritten by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Amy Martin So, I fell in love in the Arctic.
Now, I know what you’re thinking – that word Arctic, it’s nothing but bad news. Climate change, polar bears, it’s all really, really sad. But on this day, in July 2017, in Greenland, I had a completely different sort of experience of the Arctic than what we’re hearing about in the news. And I happened to have my microphone on, so just come along with me for a minute, as I walk through a maze of sled dog houses, with no idea of what’s waiting for me, just ahead.
Welcome to Threshold, I’m Amy Martin, and I’m in a place called Ilulissat. It’s a small town on Greenland’s west coast. There’s a steep, rocky hill in front of me, and off to my right, the ocean is sparkling in the sun. I step onto a long boardwalk that snakes off through a marshy field of tall green grass. It leads me down into a valley, where I come upon this cheerful notice:
Amy Martin Extreme danger. Do not walk on the beach. Death or serious injury might occur. Risk of sudden tsunami waves caused by calving icebergs. Duly noted. Not going to the beach.
And then the path begins to lead up. It cuts into the side of the hill, and for a few minutes, all I can see is rock.
Amy Martin OK, I’m coming up.
Until I come around a curve.
Amy Martin Oh, what? Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh. [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin I just came up over this little rise. There’s like a mountain of ice right,right in front of me. Uh!
As I crest the hill, I can suddenly see a range of massive snowy peaks, and it takes a while for my brain to register what I’m seeing. These aren’t actually mountains, not like soil and rock covered in snow. I’m looking at peaks of solid ice, some of them 3,000 thousand feet high.
Amy Martin It’s, it’s insane. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It looks like it can’t even be real.
With every step I take, I can see farther, and more: miles and miles of ice, descending down into this fjord, where a long thick finger of the Greenland ice sheet gets squeezed and crumpled before breaking off into the sea.
Amy Martin It’s jagged in some places, smooth in other places...it almost looks a little bit like it’s made out of sugar, like merengue or something, but filling the landscape.
The Greenland ice sheet is basically an ice cube that’s almost as big as the state of Alaska. It’s an artifact from the last ice age, ten thousand feet thick in the middle, slowly melting into the sea. I really wanted to touch it, and walk on it, but it’s super dangerous in this spot – the ice is shifting and cracking – so I just sat there on a ridge and stared at it for hours.
Amy Martin It, the, they’re so big, the ice, the ice chunks are so big that they, they make like their own shadows and shapes. I mean it really, it’s like Manhattan, it’s like the skyline of Manhattan. But ice.
Like I said, I fell in love that day. Listening to this tape now, I can hear all of the embarrassingly obvious symptoms. Like the way it turned me into a dazed, tongue-tied goofball.
Amy Martin Another thing it reminds me of is cake. Like giant pieces of cake. Cake to feed, giants? I don’t know what else to do but laugh, ‘cause it’s just so unreal.
Amy Martin For as long as human beings have walked this planet, there’s been ice in the Arctic. It’s always been there, our constant companion, helping to keep the climate calm while we’ve been figuring out how to build civilizations. But now, this region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe. The whole planet has a fever, but the Arctic’s fever is worse.
Joel Harper If you took all this ice and converted it to water and added it to the ocean, sea level would come up seven meters.
Amy Martin That’s glaciologist Joel Harper. We’re going out onto the Greenland ice sheet with him later this season, and he says that what’s happening in the far north affects all of us, no matter where we live. We depend on the frozen stuff in the Arctic to keep our climate stable, but it’s all approaching a threshold, moving closer and closer each year to a series of tipping points that could push climate change into a whole ‘nother level of bad. We wanted to get a better understanding of these processes, and we wanted to know what it feels like to the four million Arctic people who are watching their home melt around them. So for this season of our show, we went on a circumpolar journey to find out what the Arctic is, how it’s changing, and why that matters to all of us. And we discovered that there are so many reasons to love the Arctic. The ice is just the beginning.
Welcome to season two of Threshold.
Amy Martin It’s a summer night, and the kids of Shishmaref, Alaska are on the loose.
Amy Martin Hello again, how are you, Walter?
Walter Nayokpuk Good. How’s your day?
Amy Martin My day’s good, how’s your day, sir?
Walter Nayokpuk Good.
Amy Martin What are you guys playing?
Walter Nayokpuk We’re just playing around.
Amy Martin This is Walter Nayokpuk, he’s ten years old.
Walter Nayokpuk [BIG SIGH]
Amy Martin What’s wrong?
Walter Nayokpuk Right here on my ribs hurts. I ran too much.
Amy Martin He takes a break from this swirling, giggling kid mosh pit to catch his breath and ponder the universal rituals of childhood.
Walter Nayokpuk Girls are supposed to be chasing us!
Amy Martin Why are the girls supposed to be chasing the boys?
Man Passing By Because they like ‘em.
Amy Martin We’re going to spend the first two episodes of this season in Shishmaref, a small town on a barrier island in north-western Alaska, just shy of the Arctic Circle. About 600 people live here. There’s a church, a school, two stores and around a hundred and fifty houses, connected by a couple of paved roads and footpaths through the sand. This island is tiny, and kids here are pretty free to roam. Tonight, everyone under the age of 15 seems to have spontaneously gathered here, in a wide spot between some houses, to chase each other around in the sand.
Amy Martin What’s your favorite thing about living in Shishmaref?
Walter Nayokpuk Um, it’;s fun.
Amy Martin Why is it fun?
Walter Nayokpuk Because there’s a lot of kids.
Amy Martin There are a lot of kids. There are so many kids.
Walter Nayokpuk And we can be free!
Amy Martin And you can be free.
Amy Martin From Walter’s point of view, Shishmaref is a kind of paradise: a whole island of free-range, kid-friendly habitat. But the paradox of Shishmaref is that it might be both one of the safest and one of the most dangerous places to live in America today. Because this small community is one of the places where climate change is hitting the hardest in the Arctic.
Amy Martin Shishmaref is located just north of the Bering Strait. That’s the narrow waterway that separates Russia from Alaska. It’s the only town on Sarichef Island. Everywhere you go, you can see the waves, and hear the constant roar of the ocean. This island is only about a quarter of a mile wide – that’s 440 yards, or less than half a kilometer – and it’s getting smaller.
Kate Kokeok It’s changed a lot. It was always frozen like the end of October. It no longer is.
Amy Martin This is Kate Kokeok, she grew up here, and now she teaches kindergarten at the Shishmaref School. And she says the sea ice used to serve as a buffer for this little island. It would freeze up in the fall, before Arctic storms blew in, which meant the wind and waves battered the edge of the ice, instead of the edge of the island. But now, as the climate warms, sea ice is forming later and later, and waves that used to break far away from the coastline now slam directly into Sarichef Island.
Kate Kokeok Like, you look outside and you want it to freeze end of October, first part in November, because that’s when we start to have our storms. But it hasn’t been freezing then.
Amy Martin At the same time, the frozen soil, or permafrost, that the town is built on has been thawing. The combined effect is that the ocean is essentially eating Shishmaref, mostly in small, relentless nibbles, but every so often a major storm blows in, and the waves take big, deadly bites out of the coastline. According to studies by Louise Farquharson of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, between 2003 and 2014, Sarichef Island eroded at an average rate of 2.3 meters annually. That’s seven-and-a-half feet of land washing into the sea each year.
Kate Kokeok We did lose a lot of land. Like, where the seawall is now? That’s where we used to have our playground. So all of that is gone.
Amy Martin Kate has lots of memories of places that are now under water.
Kate Kokeok Well, if you go down, like, that way, that’s where like 10 to 15 houses were.
Amy Martin We’re talking inside her classroom, and she’s pointing out the window, south of the school.
Kate Kokeok Yeah. And, like, the last house it’s there now? There was a house next to it, a road, and then another house. And so you could see if you actually like visualize that you can see how much land was lost there.
Amy Martin I’ve never been in a place like Shishmaref before, where the community’s mental map is so different from the current physical map. It’s like there’s a drowned ghost town ringing the island, full of images and stories.
Kate Kokeok You know, I remember in ‘97, they were emptying out a house because it was shaking, and it was undercutting. So they were worried that it was going to fall over, so during the storm they were emptying out the house and they lifted it up and moved it a few feet onto the road, you know. So, that’s the one that I remember.
Amy Martin Kate says 2005 was another pivotal year. A huge storm hit, washing out the land under more of the houses. People gathered in the windy darkness to get the residents out and save as many of their belongings as possible. Kate’s house didn’t fall in, but it was one of the next in line.
Kate Kokeok Every time I think about it, I just want to tell people, my house now would have been right where the seawall is. Had they not moved it.
Amy Martin Kate and her husband John moved their house closer to the middle of the island after that storm, and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers built a new, stronger seawall.
Kate Kokeok Yeah, and if it wasn’t for the seawall, probably more would have been taken away, and had they not moved the houses they probably would have just fallen in.
Amy Martin The sea wall offers some protection, but it’s a temporary fix. This is an extremely low-lying island, and without the insulating barrier of the ice, eventually, the ocean is going to win. The people of Shishmaref recognize they’re not safe here, and in 2016, they voted to relocate the village to the mainland.
Dean Kuzuguk We had cliffs over there. This was a set of cliffs.
Amy Martin Dean Kuzuguk is giving me a walking tour of Shishmaref. We’re standing on a sandy ledge, just outside of the grocery store, maybe 15 feet above the beach. And like Kate, he’s trying to help me see what used to be in this spot, back when he was a kid.
Dean Kuzuguk You are standing on ground level, but like here, we would look at the top maybe like so.
Amy Martin Oh, wow.
Amy Martin He’s pointing high up above us, using his hand to show the shape of some big dunes that used to overlook the beach.
Dean Kuzuguk That’s how much ground fell over.
Amy Martin What do you think’s going to happen to Shishmaref in the future?
Dean Kuzuguk Gotta move, I think.
Amy Martin Do you want to?
Dean Kuzuguk Yeah, I do. We’re surrounded. Nowhere to run when there’s another storm.
Amy Martin Yeah, how would you guys evacuate if there was a big storm?
Dean Kuzuguk I have no idea. Just have to run with it, go with the storm.
Amy Martin Wow. Scary.
Dean Kuzuguk Let’s go, look some more.
Amy Martin After the 2005 storm, dramatic pictures of houses falling into the sea showed up in news outlets around the world, and Shishmaref became something of a poster child for climate change in the Arctic. But the community had already been dealing with erosion problems for decades at that point. In fact, Shishmaref has voted to relocate three times: the first was way back in 1973. Sarichef is a barrier island, and people here knew it wouldn’t last forever. But when a new school was built a few years after that first vote, the push to relocate lost steam.
Of course, at that time, no one knew what was coming. They were aware erosion would eventually be an issue, no one understood how much climate change would accelerate the process. And this is a really important detail to keep in mind, because it’s often the way it works with climate change – our greenhouse gas emissions are frequently speeding up or intensifying processes that are already underway. And as one climate scientist we’ll talk to later this season says: speed kills. The rate of change has a huge impact on how well people, or animals, or any living things can adapt. And in Shishmaref, the rate of change has been really fast. Not only in terms of climate, but also culture.
[MUSIC: FROM THE BIG PICTURE]
[Off the western coast of Alaska, on a small island in the Bering Sea, in as harsh an
area for human life as our planet has to offer, is the Eskimo village of Shishmaref…]
Dean Kuzuguk That’s our village.
Amy Martin I’m with Dean in his house now.
Dean Kuzuguk These are the houses that were there.
Amy Martin Oh, on that cliff more.
Dean Kuzuguk Yeah, past that store, right where the road goes up?
Amy Martin Dean is kind of a de facto historian of Shishmaref. He has a collection of video footage which he’s shot during some of their worst storms, and he owns a short film made by the U.S. Department of Defense in 1963. It’s a cross between a semi-fictionalized portrait of daily life in Shishmaref and Army propaganda. During the Cold War, the Army recruited National Guard members in Shishmaref and other coastal Alaskan communities. After all, the border with the Soviet Union was just a hundred miles away.
[FILM: This close to the border of the USSR, everything seen or heard is important…]
Amy Martin The film is part of a series called The Big Picture. Dean shows up in it as an adorable four year old, wearing a parka with a fur-lined hood, watching the bigger kids enter the school.
Dean Kuzuguk There’s George, there I am.
Amy Martin You’re so cute! Oh my gosh you’re so cute. [LAUGHS]
Amy Martin This film would be fascinating to anyone with an interest in Cold War history. But for Dean, it’s also a home movie. As the camera zooms in on different faces, he names almost every one.
Dean Kuzuguk That’s Clarence, that’s Willy. Essau. Davey. Used to be my neighbor. Vincent. My uncle Ray.
Amy Martin In this government film, the narrator refers to the people of Shishmaref as “Eskimos,” but that’s actually a label ethnic Europeans applied to several groups of people in the north. Today, most people in Shishmaref identify as Iñupiaq – that’s a subgroup of the Inuit, who live all the way from eastern Russia to Greenland.
[FILM MUSIC: “How Great Thou Art”]
Dean Kuzuguk Our old church, the choir.
Amy Martin As we watch the film together, Dean points out swaths of land that are now gone, and buildings that have been lost or moved.
Amy Martin Does it make you sad to make you think about moving?
Dean Kuzuguk About moving?
Amy Martin Moving the village.
Dean Kuzuguk I don’t know. I don’t really think about it, I just go day by day.
Amy Martin When I see this history, it makes me realize how much people have invested here.
Dean Kuzuguk Yep. But I don’t want to protect in place. The population will grow. We will certainly run out of space.
Amy Martin The square footage of the island shrinks year by year, and overcrowding is a real issue, just as Dean said. But there are other threats, too.
Joel Clement Any one of these monster storms could come spinning in off the Bering Sea and overwash a village.
Amy Martin This is Joel Clement. He’s a scientist and policy analyst who used to work at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Joel Clement We’ve got the information that shows that they could be overtopped by six feet. They don’t have any way to get out of harm’s way right now. So they’re in, they’re in a tough spot in the fall with the storm season. That’s what I worry about. That’s the top level thing I worry about.
Amy Martin Joel was one of the people leading the federal government’s effort to help Shishmaref under the Obama administration. But shortly after Donald Trump was elected, his work came to a halt. We’ll have more after this short break.
Amy Martin Welcome back to Threshold, I'm Amy Martin, and I'm talking to Joel Clement, the former director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Joel was hired in 2010, when Barack Obama was president, and Ken Salazar was the department secretary.
Joel Clement I remember the secretary bringing me into his office one day and saying OK you’re my Arctic guy. Let’s figure out we need to do there, and let’s get it right.
Amy Martin To Joel, “getting it right” meant getting Washington DC on track with what most people in Shishmaref already knew: they needed to move, and they needed to do it soon. This wasn’t a secret, and it wasn’t just happening Shishmaref: the Government Accountability Office had already issued two reports by that time, one in 2003 and another in 2009, identifying 31 Alaskan communities that were in “imminent danger.” And at the top of that list were four towns: Kivalina, Newtok, Shaktoolik and Shishmaref.
Joel Clement So we wrote a report called “Managing for the Future in a Rapidly Changing Arctic.” Submitted that to the president.
Amy Martin This report was an attempt to move from talk to action, with local communities in the driver’s seat. But, Joel says the elephant in the room was the money. Nothing in the report could be implemented without funding, and creating a new town from the ground up is expensive, especially in a place as remote as north-western Alaska. A 2004 study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated the cost for Shishmaref to move at $179 million. And those 600 people don’t have that kind of money. They don’t have any kind of money, actually. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, forty percent of people in Shishmaref live below the poverty line. Many homes don’t have running water. Joel tried to make the argument that keeping citizens safe is government’s job, no matter how much money a community has, or doesn’t have.
Joel Clement I mean, government should be scrambling to try and find ways, and dollars, to get people out of harm’s way, and find innovative ways to do that.
Amy Martin People from Shishmaref and other Alaskan communities traveled to DC to make the case for funding climate change resilience in the Arctic. But Congress was not supportive. In fact many elected officials were, and still are, not willing to accept that humans are changing the climate at all.
Joel Clement So finding dollars was very difficult. We did manage to get some grant money, and some grant programs spun up. But boy, it’s just, you know, it’s embarrassingly difficult to find those dollars within the federal government.
Amy Martin In December 2016, just before President Obama left office, he signed an executive order establishing a new “climate resilience area.” Basically, it was a structure for protecting marine resources and coordinating climate change projects in the northern Bering Sea, with tribal leaders at the helm.
Joel Clement And this included a lot of the villages that we’re talking about here, and it was it was a way for them to get a seat at the planning table for the region.
Amy Martin Joel was optimistic that this executive order would finally lead to meaningful action for communities in the Alaskan Arctic. Donald Trump had been elected president in November, and he famously had called climate change a hoax, but–
Joel Clement Frankly, despite all the anti-climate change rhetoric of these new folks, I wasn’t worried about climate change adaptation because you know you’re addressing issues that are very clear in front of you: people are being directly impacted by climate change. It’s not a model. It’s not a theory. It’s fact. And so I wasn’t I wasn’t worried. I thought that the work would continue. And of course, I was being very naive.
Amy Martin On March 1st, 2017, Ryan Zinke was sworn in as the new Secretary of the Interior. By the end of April, Obama’s executive order was revoked, and all the plans for helping these Arctic Alaskan communities were dead in the water.
Joel Clement The Bering Sea tribal elders quickly wrote a letter saying what gives. We thought everybody was okay with this. It was a clear shot across the bow that hey, it doesn’t matter whether you are working on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or protecting people in peril, anything that has a whiff of climate change to it has to stop.
Amy Martin But for Joel, it was clear that denying climate change meant ignoring the fact that people were in real danger. So he kept sounding the alarm.
Joel Clement So, I was speaking very publicly in Alaska and elsewhere about the work, saying hey resilience and adaptation are just as important if not more important than they ever were. We need to continue to do this work.
Amy Martin And then, a few months later, he received a surprising email.
Joel Clement … reassigning me from my job as director of the policy office to a job in the office that collects and disburses royalty income from oil, gas and mining companies.
Amy Martin And how did that strike you?
Joel Clement Well, immediately I could tell that this was retaliation for my climate change work and that this was not good news. But when I found out that dozens more senior executives like me had been reassigned, I realized that it was, that I was part of a purge. And I started thinking how, how on Earth do I respond to this. Because this is clearly inappropriate.
Amy Martin Joel has no training in accounting. He says it was obvious that he was not qualified for the job he was reassigned to. He was convinced this was an attempt to silence him. So he found a lawyer, and filed a whistleblower complaint, which is currently being investigated by the Office of Special Counsel. He also wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, and started speaking publicly whenever possible, trying to shine a light on what’s at stake here. And what’s at stake are the people of Shishmaref, and other Arctic Alaskan communities. This isn’t really about his job, he says. It’s about a hostility to science at the highest levels of government, which he believes is putting the American people in real danger.
Amy Martin What would you say to people who are like, well, it’s your problem. Why should the State of Alaska or the federal government or anyone else help you? If you need 200 million dollars to move, go find 200 million dollars, and good luck to you.
Joel Harper Yeah, well, they’ll be saying the same thing to Miami pretty soon right? So, I mean what happens up there in the face of climate change is an important bellwether for what’s going to happen in the rest of the coastal areas of the United States, right. Are we going to leave American citizens to their own devices to get themselves out of harm’s way? Or do we provide assistance to to do that, right? I mean we are all American citizens and we have some expectation that we’re not on our own, right. And that’s one of the things that makes this country great. And, my gosh, I mean we’re going to be seeing this very same dynamic elsewhere around the country, and as always, the poor, the communities of color, the have-nots are the ones that suffer the most.
Amy Martin I mean, how, how likely do think it is that a storm would overtop the island? I mean, have people penciled out the odds, like, oh, this is a ten percent chance per year, or a forty percent chance, or...
Joel Harper No, no one has penciled out the odds to my knowledge. I think based on the information that I have and the trends that we’re seeing now I would guess that within ten years, we’re going to lose a village and maybe more and hopefully that doesn’t happen, I hate the thought of it because there’s possible risk of loss of life up there.
Amy Martin We reached out to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for comment. He did not respond.
Amy Martin Like many communities in Alaska, Shishmaref is not connected to any roads. And it would be really hard for planes or boats to get here in the midst of a raging storm. It doesn’t take much imagination at all to picture it: the winds wailing, the waves rising, and the frigid, Arctic water rolling and crashing over the island on a dark winter night. It’s a nightmare scenario. And it’s completely possible.
Amy Martin Can you tell me, what’s your favorite thing about living in Shishmaref?
Emma Olanna Um, swimming.
Amy Martin This is Emma Olanna, she’s 9.
Amy Martin Oh, can you swim in that beach sometimes?
Emma Olanna Um, yeah. Kind of. If you want to.
Amy Martin The core questions in Shishmaref are the same ones at the center of the whole climate change conundrum: how bad does it have to get before we decide to care? Are we only motivated to help in response to tragedies? Or, can we find the same motivation to prevent them? Can we get real about what’s happening, and come together, despite our differences, to solve practical problems?
Stanley Tocktoo They need to see our lifestyle. Who we are as Iñupiaq.
Amy Martin This is Stanley Tocktoo. There’s a lot more to this story, so we’re staying in Shishmaref to hear from him and others, next time on Threshold.
Nick Mott Our production partners for this season are Montana Public Radio and PRI’s The World. Our major sponsor is the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Threshold is also supported by the Park Foundation, and by you, our listeners. You can find pictures from our reporting trip to Alaska, a link to that 1963 Army film from Shishmaref, and a whole lot more at thresholdpodcast.org.
Amy Martin Threshold is created by Nick Mott, Rachel Cramer, Cheryl Skibicki and me, Amy Martin, with help from Frank Allen, Jackson Barnett, Josh Burnham, Michael Connor, Rosie Costain, Matt Herlihy, Rachel Klein, Zoë Rom, Nora Saks, Maxine Speier and Zach Wilson. Special thanks to Deidre McMullin. Our music is by Travis Yost.