NUIQSUT, Alaska – The varnished wooden cross stands amid a cluster of grave markers tilted at odd angles in the cemetery because the ground beneath them is sinking. Rising temperatures are thawing the once-frozen earth, forming pools of water that run through the graveyard.
In late May, Martha Itta buried her 89-year-old grandmother here. Before the ceremony even began, a young villager had to siphon off water that had crept into the grave.
Not even the dead are immune from climate change.
On Alaska’s North Slope, a remote wilderness of astonishing vastness and variety, the cold Arctic landscape once seemed eternal. When her grandmother was a girl, Itta’s ancestors were nomads, roaming the mountains, rivers and tundra in search of caribou and other game. Now, Itta lives in Nuiqsut (noo-IK-sut), a village of some 480 souls whose lives have been utterly transformed by oil.
Oil drilling has brought great prosperity to Nuiqsut, but the town’s very foundations are imperiled by oil’s fundamental role in the global economy. In a nation coming to recognize the effects of climate change — and to question the dependence on fossil fuels that drive global warming — the village is caught between a comfortable present and a frightening future.
With a coastline running 650 miles along the Arctic Ocean, the North Slope Borough is bigger than Kansas. But it remains one of America’s most sparsely populated places, with just 10,000 people living in eight villages across 95,000 square miles.
Nuiqsut is one of them.
It has fallen to Itta, the town’s 42-year-old tribal administrator, to steer her town away from the deal its founders brokered two decades ago. She is convinced that to preserve her people’s heritage, their environment and the animals they depend on, they must slow the fossil fuel extraction that has brought both money and a melting tundra.
Here at the edge of the North Slope, the annual temperature has risen 7.3 degrees Fahrenheit, a Washington Post analysis of a century of temperature data has found.
It is, along with a sliver of Siberia and the Norwegian island of Svalbard, the fastest-warming spot of land on Earth.
With global greenhouse gas emissions continuing to climb, and a new oil boom in Alaska on the horizon, there is no cure in sight.
Already, by nearly every measure, the changes here and across the state have been profound.
Sea ice cover in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas hit a record low of 270,000 square miles at the end of October, half of what it averaged between 1981 and 2010.
As a result, winters are warming. Less sea ice means more open water and more moisture in the air — which comes down as rain and snow. In the past three years, rainfall here has doubled compared with the preceding decade, according to University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF) professor Christopher Arp.
All that water helps dissolve the ice wedges in frozen tundra known as permafrost, which has warmed between 5.4 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit in the past three decades. Some 600 more lakes linked to thawing permafrost have appeared on the North Slope since 1955, according to UAF researcher Prajna Lindgren.
These changes are drowning Alaska Native towns. Twelve rural villages are hoping to move to drier ground, making their nearly 4,000 residents among the first climate refugees in the United States. Fourteen more are considered “high priority” for relocation.
All manner of wildlife have been affected. Bowhead whales were late to appear this fall in the warming Arctic waters. Grizzlies and beavers have been showing up in greater numbers in recent years as the changing climate makes the Arctic more hospitable. And tens of thousands of summer chum salmon died of heat stress this summer in western Alaska, where river temperatures soared above 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cultural sites melt away
The 2019 thaw season on the North Slope’s coast was the greatest on record, degrading cultural and archaeological sites from ice cellars to ancient settlements to graveyards. Anne Jensen, a scientist who has worked on the North Slope for a third of a century, said Alaska Natives face the prospect of losing a tangible connection to their past a generation from now, “because it’s not going to be there anymore.”
But Itta cannot accept that scenario. A no-nonsense, somewhat weary civil servant, she has opted to fight further drilling even though it is unclear what could sustain the economy in place of oil.
From her perspective, her elders are watching her even though they are gone. She still posts messages to her late grandmother on her Facebook page. “Today, I work for you,” Itta wrote on what would have been her grandmother’s 90th birthday. “I hear what my grandparents said. I know what they wanted,” she explained.
The question is not only whether she can convince her own neighbors. It’s whether Alaskans, with the signs of climate change all around them, are ready to make some tough choices.
ConocoPhillips, whose nearby operations underpin Nuiqsut’s economy, ranks as Alaska’s largest crude oil producer and its largest exploration lease owner. It produces 189,000 barrels of oil and gas a day on 1.7 million acres throughout the North Slope.
Oil built Itta’s village. Today, the oil money has left Nuiqsut relatively well off. Over the past two decades, annual dividends for full Kuukpik Corporation shareholders have ballooned from $1,000 to $31,000. The median household income is $84,464, according to the state — well above the national average of $62,000.
But as oil production and climate change have reshaped life in Nuiqsut, the symbiotic relationship between the Alaska Natives and ConocoPhillips has begun to fray.
Teenagers step in
The fall whaling season, one of the most important cultural traditions on Alaska’s North Slope, was nearly derailed by warmer waters that shifted the migration patterns of bowhead whales. Nuiqsut whaling crews caught three bowhead in two days at the end of August, but then the animals swam farther offshore.
The town’s most accomplished hunter, Thomas “Kupa” Napageak, had his crew sail more than 30 miles in every direction but failed to spot any more prey.
Though oil is Nuiqsut’s economic lifeblood, Itta asked the tribal council in February to join a lawsuit over Conoco’s exploration plan that calls for nearly 70 miles of ice roads, and up to 23 ice pads to support six exploratory wells. The council agreed — in part, Itta said, because members felt they lacked a voice in decisions made in Washington.
On Oct. 19, Itta dressed in the traditional kuspuk of her family’s whaling crew and took her place in Fairbanks at the Alaska Federation of Natives’ annual meeting.
More than a thousand tribal delegates gathered in an arena, seated according to their region, in a city whose air quality reached hazardous levels in July as wildfires raged nearby.
Two teenage girls offered a resolution calling on the delegates to declare a “climate change state of emergency.” The proposal did not mention fossil fuels once, but everyone knew they were taking aim at oil and gas companies in Alaska.
“These companies up north are only thinking about economic growth. And we need to be thinking about our futures, too,” said Nanieezh Peter, 15, wearing a moose hide vest beaded by her aunt as she addressed a dais filled with elders. “And it should only be our futures that we are worried about right now, because it is urgent, and it is now.”
Peter’s ally, Quannah Chasing Horse Potts, spoke up, fighting back tears.
“We are not environmentalists. And our scientists are telling us what is happening on this Earth,” said Potts, 17. “We are indigenous youth, and we do not want to stop our way of life. That’s why we’re here. We’re not here to fight against you, we’re here to fight with you.”
The girls’ proposal was overwhelmingly approved.
Itta, who brought three of Nuiqsut’s tribal youth council members to the conference, said she understood why teens were challenging their elders.
Still, she wondered: “Well, what does it mean now?”