Gray waves surged over miles and miles of open water, breaking against the bluffs underlying Kaktovik. Thetiny
village sits precariously on the Beaufort
Sea, a frigid body of water bordering
Alaska’s northeastern Arctic coast. As
the choppy waters inundated vulnerable stretches of shoreline, the surf carved
deep chasms into the tall bluffs.
Torre Jorgenson, a geomorphologist
working near Kaktovik, watched the
storm boil up, shaking homes and boats
for nearly two days in July 2008. Dramatic erosion followed soon after. Blocks
of graphite-colored earth, as much as
10 meters wide and several meters deep,
toppled into the sea one by one like skyscrapers in a Japanese monster film.
“The locals had never seen that type of
erosion,” says Jorgenson, also president
of the U.S. Permafrost Association. “It was
something new, a regime change.”
The erosion Jorgenson witnessed
was a potent warning to Kaktovik’s resi-
dents of the instability of their coastal
home. Seaside bluffs and beaches across
the Arctic are inhabited by indigenous
northerners— such as Inupiat living in
Kaktovik — as well as clutches of plants
and animals that thrive in the cold air. But
these shores are mercurial, crumbling
away bit by bit with each season.
By Daniel Strain
Storms can ravage coastal
permafrost, as shown near the
village of Kaktovik, Alaska.