Monday, February 29, 2016

Barrow’s Dilemma

Barrow, Alaska, may have to move to higher ground sooner than expected.

The northernmost town in the United States is on ground that is 3 to 4 meters above sea level. The immediate area will be below sea level within two centuries because of sea level rise. There is plenty of high ground nearby, but because of the strategic importance of Barrow it might make sense to keep the town relatively where it is.

No one has a plan to accomplish that, though. Local authorities are hoping for a sea wall, but that might cost $1 billion to build, and the Army Corps of Engineers says that’s too expensive. Barrow is a town of 4,000. The cost of rebuilding the entire town on higher ground would be less than half the cost of the sea wall.

Barrow faces a dilemma after last summer, when an otherwise unremarkable storm had onshore winds for hours, just long enough to flood a dozen coastal buildings. The storm lasted nearly long enough to pour sea water into the town’s water supply. With summer sea ice disappearing, similar storms can be expected every few years. The local director of government affairs says last year’s storm made them realize “Barrow is just one storm away from a major catastrophe.” Barrow, then, may not have 30 years to rebuild itself one building at a time. Yet with no funding for anything else, the best answer might still be to start on that approach and hope for the best.