Bulgaria sea coast

Southwest Alaska community on Bering Sea coast experiences severe flooding

An aerial view of flooding in Kwigillingok on June 24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Igkurak)

Kwigillingok, a community on the Bering Sea coast in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, is used to some flooding during high tides. But in recent years, these floods have worsened, reaching a new level last week.

The flooding began Friday morning as the high tide began to rise.

“It’s the worst we’ve ever seen,” said Gary Evon, the environmental coordinator for Kwigillingok Aboriginal Village.

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Aerial photographs posted on Facebook show a majority of the community submerged in water. A photo shows someone rafting around the village using a shovel as a paddle.

Buildings in the city are raised on stilts, so Evon said water does not enter any structure. But 6 inches of water covered the ground below. Much of the community promenade was under water last Thursday, but Evon said residents had enough walkways to navigate the village. On Friday, Evon said the village was flooded again with the next high tide.

A person in Kwigillingok paddles through the community as it is flooded. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Igkurak)

A small flood is nothing new in Kwigillingok, but what is new is the increased severity of tidal flooding in recent years. Evon said this was due to a changing environment.

“With global warming, melting permafrost and land subsidence,” Evon said.

Global temperatures are rising at an accelerating rate. According to a study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program, temperatures in the Arctic are rising three times faster than in the rest of the world. The permafrost under Kwigillingok thaws, causing the land to subside. The lowered elevation makes the land more susceptible to flooding during storms and high tides, and the flooding melts the permafrost even further.

Evon said the community was planning to relocate a few homes most at risk from erosion and unstable soils, but with the severity of recent flooding, Evon said Kwigillingok was considering bigger solutions.

“The whole community is starting to think seriously about moving to higher ground,” Evon said.

Moving an entire community is as daunting an effort as it may seem. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium estimated that the cost of relocating Kwigillingok would exceed $100 million.