Alaska, United States

A small village on the Bering Sea coast is flooding, eroding, and sinking. The village of Niugtaq (Newtok) sits atop six-meter pilings, scattered in the gutters of marshland in the mudflats of the Ningliq River. Each pile drives fragmented infrastructure skyward, further away from the land. Elevated buildings are connected by raised boardwalks, bedecking villagers across the variably hard and frozen or soggy and muddy conditions. Associations are linked by this hard geometry, as daily life is traced in the patterns that lead from the front door to the school, the drying racks, the airstrip, the clinic, and back home again. If you leave the path, your boots get sucked in by the tundra.

Northern Seasons

There are two seasons in the Arctic tundra: each one begins with an equinox and has a solstice at the center. In physical terms, the seasons alternate between summer warms of flood, erode, sink, and winter colds of freeze, frost and ice. In practical terms, the freeze-thaw engenders rituals tied to life with permafrost, from hunting and foraging to ice fishing and smoking. The practical and material are lodged in these quotidian adaptations, patching infrastructure, replacing slats along damaged boardwalks and mending bends, twists, and heaves that animate human artifacts. The freeze and thaw cycles do not simply interlace boardwalks, they bind the community to cycles of communal repair.

In southwestern Alaska, where permafrost coincides with coastal marshes and bogs, thawing is usually confined to the thin mantle of surface soil aptly named the “active layer.” Life mingles in the active layer, disregarding any theoretical differences between nature and culture, as it imposes unbiased change onto concrete structures and river basins alike. As the layer activates, it forces widespread deviations that range from suspending stream flow channels, to upending miles of telephone poles that come to rest at more suitable angles. The force of the active layer is anticipated by communities in the tundra, a predictable flip that unfolds between winter and non-winter months. Less anticipated is the duration of seasonal thaw and the undeniable tendency for melt to last longer and longer—and longer. It is not news that the tundra is warming, as the steady rise of average temperatures are registered from Siberia to Alaska. What might be noteworthy is not that the tundra is somehow “disappearing” or “melting” but that it is migrating north with the freeze. Permafrost is chasing cold to survive.

“From the air I could see a string of houses, an airstrip, a haphazard scattering of boats, seal drying racks, and abandoned machinery. In the relative absence of other signs of human life, these human artefacts took on animated qualities. The houses dug into the tundra and clung to the shore. The boats crept to the water’s edge. The seal racks grew from the ground. Flying into a rural Arctic village felt like flying into a more focused, less abstract world, something I still feel today. Everything in the landscape—human, animal, plant and plastic—has sharp lines and exists in its own right, with some history.”

          — Elizabeth Marino, Fierce Climate,
          Sacred Ground

It is not a stretch to say that permafrost is retreating. The im- pulse to find colder temperatures is adaptive, enabling permafrost to creep across national borders, snubbing the hard lines of raised infrastructure and the divisions of census districting. Permafrost cannot be tied down because it is an earthly, natural force. Despite the obvious nature of this statement, the cultural consequences of permafrost retreat are manifold for those who live with the active layer, for the thousands of tundra villagers tied to federal policies that do not acknowledge the changeability of the active layer, or the freedom embedded in retreat.

Newtok—Niugtaq in the native Yup’ik language—is one such vil- lage. The residents of Niugtaq felt the retreat of permafrost decades ago. Escalating change motivated residents to first appeal to the fed- eral government in 1997, and almost every year since. The residents recognized that longer warms, and shorter colds suggested that the land was subsiding, they were attuned to the signals of change as an earthly force sped up by circumstances far beyond their control, their lands or their laws. The village would soon be part of the widening Nigliq River and retreating with the permafrost was a practical decision reached as a community. But the story is not so simple.

The story of Niugtaq is not an easy one to tell because it does
not grant access to the land that is left behind. The Yup’ik nation considers the land sacred, even if it is disappearing. There is no word for the not-so-permafrost that is failing to uphold elevated infrastructure, stream channels, and the lives that depend on the fact that winter follows summer. The far-reaching shifts in temperature are bewildering life in more ways than can ever be named, designated, or recorded.

Instead, the story of Niugtaq yields to climate history, a point in time where the propensity for detached survey no longer justifies our existence, where evaluation and classification are now extinct. Niugtaq has already been studied, photographed, reviewed, critiqued, funded, de-funded, evaluated, shared, and trafficked. It is “tweeted” and “liked” across the world, accumulating more news coverage than any physical or material support, as swarms of journalists and buzzing professors mix with the grit of everyday life. Newtok, Kivalina, and Shishmaref are three distinct villages similarly constrained by policy that appealed to migration; the ensuing rush of media is lengthy. There are too many news headlines, all spectacular: search the internet for “Newtok, Alaska,” and you will find stories of “victims,” “abandonment,” and the “Anthropocene.” In 2010, 350 people called Niugtaq home. Currently, the census claims that the population is zero. Policy faltered in these decades, leaving behind another layer of the past whereby regulatory and environmental friction engenders violence. This is history on repeat, an account of Indigenous life that extracts to advance. An account that has no place in the present and might only have a future if the narrative is radicalized.

Species Vulnerability

In 1996, anthropologist Ruth Behar wrote about the depersonalizing trend of humans observing other humans, not as a historic tendency in anthropology, but as an enduring trait of fieldwork in general, due to the “greater taboo of self-revelation.” Her suggestion explores the enduring convention that to progress as a scholar, all emotional response in the observer must be omitted. Behar prompts the disparity of privilege found in conducting research by explaining that the observer has a responsibility to their own emotions. Picking up on a lineage of voices from the interpretive influence of Clifford Geertz to the feminist studies of Donna J. Haraway, Behar finds the confidence to merge her own experience as a Jewish-Cuban immigrant into her work, through values of reciprocity rather than master ideology. She seeks an anthropology that breaks your heart in order to view people and their customs “from the perspective of an anthropologist who has come to know herself by knowing others.” What moves
me about Behar’s fieldwork is that she makes the most out of her own experience in order to respond and relate to the world around her. Acknowledging personal emotions offers a clue to naming the losses we share in the twenty-first century, a different kind of guide that avoids the false objectivity of earlier epochs. Is it possible to study permafrost without experiencing the thaw? Can unfamiliar landscapes engender suprapersonal observation? Embracing species vulnerability reveals that climate action is emotionally inclusive. Only the personal can guide compassion and care.

A rare glimpse of a home typical of village life in
1974. Niugtaq was documented by the US Geologic Survey in 1949. By 1958, the first BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) school was built onsite because the village was the farthest point upriver that their barge could reach to offload materials, an investment that began to reassure more fixed settlement. Studies of perma- frost vulnerability, and undeviating erosion began in 1983 and concluded that the village would
have to relocate.

A rupture twenty-five kilometers deep beneath the Nazca plate, produced the earthquake, triggering a tsunami that traveled along the fault at tectonic junctions. The magnitudinous waves spread beneath the coast until making landfall along the shores between Constitución and Concepción. Magnitude is relative power, and its measurement takes into account the energy released at the source. By comparison, intensity is the strength of the shaking produced by the magnitude.