The Yukon Kuskokwim Delta
Article by Caitlyn Bishop
Within the vast realm of wild Alaska lies a place few human beings have set foot, a rich landscape where wildlife from around the world comes to rear their young in eternal daylight. Located 400 miles west of Anchorage, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta encompasses the southernmost mass of mainland Alaska that protrudes into the southern Bering Sea, covering an area over 75,000 square miles. Known simply as the ‘YK Delta’ by its few inhabitants, this unspoiled land spans an area roughly the size of Oregon and has become recognized as critically important habitat for some of Alaska’s most prided and treasured species of bird, fish and mammal.
Void of trees, buildings or roads leading in or out, the YK Delta boasts thousands of acres of tidal mudflats, wide swaths of flat grassy land and a circulatory system of rivers and sloughs, all of which are birthed from the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and make a convoluted journey across the tundra before terminating at the Bering Sea. Upon first glance, it is a barren and monochromatic landscape, seemingly incapable of sustaining life of any kind. Yet, upon closer inspection, during those rare occasions when humans are granted permission to enter this land, a world of life unnoticed shines through with persistence and in great abundance.
It’s a race against the clock for the hundreds of species of wildlife that come to breed in the Delta during the summer months, as the notorious Alaskan midnight sun makes its appearance in May, hanging on the horizon and threatening to dip down as every day passes. As short as it is, this ration of sunlight from May to late July will be more than enough needed to thaw the icy grip of spring and allow for the growth of nutrient-rich grasses, lichens and other plants across the entirety of the Delta. As though they had been informed of ice break-up on the rivers and thawing of the tundra, birds from every continent of the world begin to appear overnight.
Masses of waterfowl, shorebirds, seabirds and raptors up to half a million individuals thick begin to trickle in and commence the search for the best breeding spot. Considering its size, the Delta has more than enough room for all who arrive.
As June arrives and the rivers and ice continue to thaw and break, fish and marine mammals find their way from the tumult of the Bering Sea to seek shelter in the warmer and more protected waters of the Delta to breed and raise their young. Soon, the Delta is filled with the chatter of garrulous birds defending territory and attracting mates, the splashes of salmon leaping from the rivers and the unrelenting wind pushing its way warily across the infinitely expansive land.
However remarkably lively and productive in nature, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta is currently under the siege of global climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and other parts of Alaska are faced with irreversible problems such as coastal erosion, seasonal flooding, the intensification of seasonal storms, retreating sea ice and an increase in permafrost melting. As a result of these problems and others associated with global climate change, the paradigm between the land and its inhabitants have begun a dramatic shift.
Permafrost, the frozen layer of ground found year-round beneath the rootless tundra, plays a crucial role in the preservation of the Delta’s innumerable miles of river coastline. During the summer months, the permafrost layer slowly melts away as a result of sunlight intensification on the tundra. Following this cycle of melting is the natural release of small sections of tundra into rivers and streams.
However, as this process accelerates over time and the permafrost begins melting at a faster rate, greater portions of land are released into rivers and streams and carried out to the Bering Sea, leaving substantially less room for terrestrial wildlife, widening rivers and dumping many tons of sediment into fragile spawning habitat. Storms and inclement weather are commonplace on the YK Delta and occur with great variability throughout the year. However, as ocean temperatures continually rise in the Bering Sea, warmer seawater magnifies the most mild of storms, transforming them into disastrous acts that pack a deadly punch upon reaching land.
Climate change has become a fearsomely inconvenient fate for all those who depend so heavily on the Delta for survival and wellbeing, including humans. Native Cup’ik (pronounced chew-pick) and Yu’pik (pronounced yew-pick) tribes living in villages scattered throughout the Delta, who have subsisted on the many species of wildlife that occupy the land and water throughout the year for centuries, are faced with the threat of not only coastal erosion, but the decrease in abundance of wildlife that comes with it.
As subsistence hunters and gatherers, many native villages exist along or in close proximity to rivers and bays where fish, marine mammals and birds are commonly collected. The native village of Chevak, located less than 10 miles inland from the Bering Sea in the exact middle of the Delta, has historically been faced with the recurring problem of seasonal coastal erosion.
The original site of the village, Old Chevak, located just 15 miles east of the current village site, was evacuated in 1960 when coastal erosion became too great of an issue for its inhabitants to manage for and deal with effectively. Now, with even greater swaths of the Delta disappearing into the Bering Sea on an annual basis, the people of Chevak are once again faced with the threat of relocation. Thousands of sandbags and rusty lengths of rebar litter the shores of the Niglintgak River, which flows through the village, in a desperate attempt to preserve the village as it stands and to hopefully avoid the same fate as their ancestors. Moving the village once again even farther inland away from the rivers could bring with it potentially negative and harmful effects to the people of Chevak.
In a village where the price of a gallon of gasoline exceeds the national minimum wage, the cost of taking a boat to a hunting or fishing site will become more than many people in Chevak can currently afford. As sworn stewards and protectors of the land and its wild inhabitants for the past millennia, the people of Chevak and the many other villages of the Delta are slowly loosing touch with the traditions of their native peoples as a result of these environmental changes, a fate certainly more consequential than what meets the eye.
The issues of coastal erosion, sea level rise, widespread loss of critically important habitat for wildlife and storm intensification are not unique to the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. The Arctic coast, consisting of Northern Alaska, Eastern Siberia, Northern Scandinavia and Northwest Territories of Canada, represent 34% of the Earth’s coastline. Currently, an alarming 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) of this coastline is eroded into the ocean every year, resulting in widespread habitat loss and an increase in ocean sedimentation.
Unfortunately, current legislation striving to decelerate this process does not move as quickly as the process itself, and these widespread issues are not currently being dealt with at the level they require. Furthermore, the voice of native Alaskans suffering the immediate consequences of these issues does not reach so far as Washington D.C. and their present ethno-biological issues often fall on the ears of those who are unfamiliar with this particular environment and its ecological significance. Indeed, these statistical snapshots of a slowly deteriorating ecosystem offer nothing more than feelings of helplessness and doubt of any improvement.
Yet, it is our awareness of this current issue that makes it visible to the world and the most important step in the direction of activism. The more aware of this issue we become, the more we can do to facilitate the current dialogue between native Alaskans and those interested in protecting it.
Inevitably, August arrives and autumn flows across the Delta, creeping its way slowly over the tundra and between the countless lakes that pepper the landscape, freezing everything in its wake. Soon, large groups of birds can be seen migrating south, their summer’s work accomplished once more and their newly feathered young flying beside them. Salmon, now tired in their attempts of courtship and spawning, die off in masses and are carried out by the rivers to a burial at sea.
What now remains on the tundra, mosses, grass or forgotten eggs are left to freeze and will remain part of the frozen landscape until the winter lightens its grip and allows once again for life to exist. Next year, the Delta will appear slightly different to those who come to take up residence. From a bird’s eye perspective the rivers will be a little bit wider, the tundra a little less expansive, but still productive enough to rear a successful brood.
To a salmon, the water will be cloudier and maybe more difficult to navigate, but instinct will persist where sight fails and these gentle creatures will endure for another season. To a human, the changes are minute, but carry with them a great significance. Like the birds and fish, their thoughts are focused on the continuation of themselves and those who will survive them. Winter will come and go, and once again, in the light of the midnight sun, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta will see another summer.
Center for Ocean Solutions (2013). Retrieved from http://centerforoceansolutions.org/climate/impacts/cumulative-impacts/coastal erosion/
Parry, W. (2011). Arctic’s Icy Coastlines Retreat as Planet Warms. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/13746-arctic-coast-erosion-climate-change-ice.html
Peltola, G. (2011). Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Retrieved from http://yukondelta.fws.gov/.
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Zhang, K., B. C. Douglas & S. P. Leatherman. 2004. Global Warming and Coastal Erosion. Climactic Change, 64: pg. 41-58.
(2006). Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Service Area. Retrieved from http://www.ihs.gov/alaska/documents/hf/yk.pdf