This paper was written as part of the 2010 Alaska Oceans Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

Devastating Effect of Arctic Ice on the Village of Newtok


Jonah Jeffries
Rachael Cline
Gavin Fonseca
Brandon Olson
Nicole Craig


Mat-Su Career & Technical High School
2472 North Seward Meridian Parkway
Wasilla, Alaska 99654


The tiny village of Newtok, Alaska is facing a massive problem: global warming and erosion are wasting away the town at an alarming rate. As a team we conducted research on a spectrum of subjects, including turbidity and erosion, global warming, the economic impact on the village, the direct and indirect effects of this problem on two organisms, and the mitigation necessary to help Newtok. Results from the research conducted showed that because of global warming and erosion, Newtok's coastline is losing 70 feet of coastline per year, and the village is expected to disappear within a decade. The ocean ecosystem surrounding Newtok, as well as the village itself, is being degraded, and will be destroyed within one generation if immediate action is not taken.


Newtok is a small village in southwestern Alaska, located on the Ninglick River and just north of Nelson Island, about 40 miles northwest of Bethel. It lies at approximately 60.942780° North Latitude and -164.629440° West Longitude. The village is in the Bethel Recording District and is located in a marine climate where the average precipitation is 17 inches, and an annual snowfall of 22 inches.

Newtok is currently populated by 321 Alaskan Natives, American Indian (95.3%), Caucasians, and other or combined races (1.6%).

The amount of usable land in the village of Newtok is slowly shrinking. Parts of the village that were previously inhabitable are now immersed in the ocean. The sea ice that previously protected Newtok's shoreline from winter storms has been prematurely melting each season and causing erosion. This erosion is due to global warming or climate change. Newtok is below sea level, so the premature melting of the permafrost is turning the small village into an island, which is expected to be completely underwater within a decade.

Newtok has been losing about 70 feet of coastline per year. In 1996, they lost their city dump. It is expected that at the current rate of climate change, the village will lose their local water source by 2022, and the public school and landing strip will be gone by 2027.

Because of these forecasts, the village has been considering relocation to a town site on Nelson Island, approximately nine miles away, called Mertarvik. The government has obtained and set aside $1 million to build a dock at Mertarvik so that building materials and supplies could be delivered there.

Turbidity and Erosion

"Turbidity is a unit of measurement quantifying the degree to which light traveling through a water column is scattered by the suspended organic (including algae) and inorganic particles." If there are a high number of organic constituents in turbid water, it is possible to harbor high concentrations of bacteria, viruses, and protozoan. Such organisms have a devastating effect on other organisms populating rivers. Fish in turbid water have reduced effectiveness at obtaining food. This reduces their ability to detect predators. It then reduces the abundance of prey. Consequently, predators have less prey to consume. Turbidity and siltation have an effect on the number of floor-bottom organisms; when the numbers of organisms are reduced, it results in changes to density, community structure and diversity. The entire ecosystem of the Ninglick River is affected negatively by turbidity.

Light penetration is reduced when turbidity is caused by high concentrations of sediment in the water in a body of water. The photosynthetic activity of phytoplankton, algae and macrophytes is suppressed. Overall, turbidity reduces the amount of photosynthetic organisms and ultimately diminishes the amount of food for invertebrates (

Coastline erosion also has a dramatic effect on the turbidity of the river water. The coastline along Newtok has sea ice during colder seasons of the year. Melting sea ice has caused tremendous erosion and flooding in Newtok; it is losing approximately 70 feet of coastline per year. As a result of global warming, the sea ice is forming later in the season and attaching to the coast later. The sea ice is also breaking up earlier in the year. It is less extensive as well as thinner. The land is exposed to coastal storms and powerful waves. These waves tear down the coast and wash the sediment and silt into the river. These waves hit at about 30 miles an hour at a frequency of one every ten seconds. All the silt that is washed into the water causes excessive turbidity.

The erosion has made Newtok an island, caught between the Ninglick River toward the north and the Newtok River to the south. The village is below sea level and sinking. The boardwalks squish into the muck.

Global Warming

More information from the satellites of NASA report that arctic ice is retracting at 9% per decade. The average atmospheric temperatures are rising at a rate twice as fast as they are in other regions of the world. The ice is becoming thinner; the result is the melting and rupturing of the ice. The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf was the largest single block of ice at about 400 square kilometers, and very stable, for 3,000 years. It started to crack in the year 2000. It took two years for it to split all the way through and break off in large pieces. When this happened, the ice shelf dammed the largest epishelf lake, "a body of freshwater that floats on denser ocean water" (, known; it was also the best understood. As the shelf fractured, it drained the epishelf lake, which inhabited a rare ecosystem. This ecosystem was destroyed.

The function of polar ice is to reflect the sun's heat back into the atmosphere and without polar ice more heat is able to reach the earth surface, causing the arctic surface temperatures to increase. As the Arctic ice shelf continues to melt, water levels are rising. The Ninglick River has overflowed into Newtok, causing concern. The rising levels combined with the sinking of ground level have flooded the town. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determine which communities are in the greatest danger. Newtok is one of three Alaskan villages that face the shortest life spans where they are currently located. "When there is a problem that develops over years and decades, such as Alaskan erosion, the perception of urgency is not as acute," said Bruce Sexauer, a senior planner with the Corps of Engineers. "The impacts of a hurricane can be felt nationwide, whereas similar situations in remote communities are oftentimes only known by a select few." (

The earth beneath much of Alaska is not what it used to be. The permanently frozen subsoil, known as permafrost, upon which Newtok and so many other Native Alaskan villages rest, is melting, yielding to warming air temperatures and a warming ocean. Sea ice that would normally protect coastal villages is forming later in the year, allowing fall storms to pound away at the shoreline. The ice is thinning and shrinking to record lows, says International Arctic Research Center at University of Alaska Fairbanks research scientist, David Atkinson (


Phytoplanktons are singled celled organisms. They are plantlike, nekton plankton that live all across the Earth's ocean. The net plankton, named after the fact that they are the smallest ones that are able to be captured, can range from .07 to 1 millimeter in diameter. Although very small, phytoplankton make up about one half of the oxygen produced on earth ( Every marine food chain in the ocean relies on the algal bloom of phytoplankton. Shapes and the general biology of a phytoplankton depend on the overall climate of the ocean environment.

Recently, thinning sea ice has made a direct effect on marine life. Ice algae, a single-celled organism capable of attaching itself to ice (, will suffer a decrease in numbers from the now fragile sea ice. Due to global warming, sea ice is melting earlier in the spring ( This shorter period of sea ice projects a decreased sea algae production. The common phytoplanktons in the Bering Sea are key producers in the food chain in sea ice water. Phytoplankton major food consumption during the spring bloom is sea algae. The ocean floor consists of benthic creatures that benefit from extraneous phytoplankton dropping down to the ocean floor (certain phytoplankton, or more specifically diatoms, frustules fall off when they die ( A decrease in ice algae corresponds to a decrease in phytoplankton. This causes a simultaneous depletion on deep ocean creatures and surface feeders alike. The lower population of phytoplankton directly rids the ocean of the primary food sources of zooplankton and benthic creatures. This continues on and creates a domino effect that could negatively impact the whole ecosystem of the Bering Sea and quite possibly other parts of the world's oceans by food scarcity.

In 2005, research by the Fisheries Oceanography Coordinated Investigations Program concluded that larger masses of a certain type of phytoplankton (microprotozoa) were found in the Shelikof Strait (southwestern coast of Alaska) than Southeastern Bering Sea during spring blooming. The abundances come between 300 to 6233 organisms at the Bering Sea and 850 to 14,960 organisms as the Shelikof Strait ( The population of each bloom in the Bering Sea was clearly less than that of Shelikof Strait. These observations point to the conclusion that phytoplankton are decreasing in numbers because of melting sea ice. To further support this idea, completed experiments show that the correlation coefficient between chlorophyll production and ice concentration in the Beaufort and Chukchi Sea were .45 in May. This deficiency of phytoplankton and sea ice is consistent and the evidence is being shown through the years.


Pacific halibut, one of the larger flatfish, are found on the continental shelf from California to the Bering Sea. Halibut have flat, diamond shaped bodies, which can weigh up to 500-700 pounds, and can grow up to nine feet long.

Halibut migrate long distances from shallow summer feeding grounds to deeper winter spawning grounds. The number of eggs they lay depends on the female's size. A 50-pound female can produce about 500,000 eggs; while a female over 250 pounds can produce 4 million eggs. The eggs float freely in deep ocean currents. They hatch after 12 to 15 days, and the larvae drift to shallow waters on the continental shelf. Larvae begin life in an upright position with eyes on both sides of their head. When they are about one inch long, the left eye migrates over the snout to the right side of the head, and the color of the left side fades. When the young halibut are about six months old, they settle to the sea floor, where the protective coloring on their "eyed" side effectively camouflages them. Female halibut mature at around 12 years, while males mature at around eight years. Adult fish tend to remain in the same area year after year, except for their migration to deepwater spawning grounds. The oldest halibut on record was 55 years old.

New born halibut feed on plankton. Adults feed on cod, Pollock, sablefish, rockfish, turbot, sculpins, sand lance, herring, octopus, crabs, and occasionally smaller halibut.

With the ability to be kept fresh for a long time, halibut became a popular target for commercial fishing. Early halibut fishing started in the 1890's with fleets of fishing boats. By the 1910's it was more apparent that the halibut stocks were suffering from over-fishing. In 1923, U.S. and Canada signed a convention on halibut, leader to the creation of the International Pacific Halibut Commission. The commission has set rules and regulations on how many pounds can be taken, called a quota (

Economic Impact

Newtok's economics are being greatly affected by the loss of sea ice. Along with the receding sea ice, the population of the phytoplankton (Melosira arcticaa) is also depleting. The herring and halibut population has done the same, affecting the commercial fishing in Newtok, which is the principle source of income for the village. Thirty-one residents hold a total of 34 commercial fishing permits in the halibut and herring fisheries: 17 residents hold 19 commercial permits in the halibut fishery and 14 residents hold 15 commercial permits in the herring fishery. However, most residents depend on subsistence fishing for a major part of their livelihood.

Because of erosion, there is loss of septic, and it is impossible for supplies to be brought in on barges. Newtok's barge dock has been under water since 2005. Food and sales have become scarce and more expensive to obtain.

Newtok is at a near financial standstill. Because of heavy consideration for relocation, there is almost no flow of imports or exports. The tiny population does not see the sense in spending more than the necessary amount of money on a village that is about to be abandoned (

With the loss of land and it taking longer for the ice to freeze in the winter, it is harder to travel to other villages than it has been in the past winters. For those that travel on snow machine, the distances between destinations that were previously minor trips are now longer and more dangerous. Many risk falling through the thinning ice.


Newtok has been affected by erosion for years. Most proposals for saving the Newtok community involve relocating it to another island. Studies conducted since 1982 indicate there are no other permanent and cost-effective alternatives for the island. If the village of Newtok is moved to another location, the cost would be around $130 million. This averages at about $412,000 per household ( The Shishmaref village transportation planner, Tony Weyiouanna, says that the blending of two villages is unacceptable, even as small an area as 100 miles. Native villages generally stayed within a certain region to reduce cultural blending. The combining of communities would cause both cultures to die ( Because climate change is the main cause of erosion around Newtok, there has been a very realistic idea suggesting that leaders of Newtok and their affiliates pursue a lawsuit against oil, power, and coal companies, much like the village of Kivalina, who faced a very similar predicament and was first to sue several energy and coal companies including Exxon Mobile, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. Kivalina accuses the defendants of being responsible for thinning sea ice and increased storm surges, thus forcing the village to relocate. In particular, they blame Exxon Mobile as being the leaders in the conspiracy of global warming ( By suing these fuel producers, we could obtain the amount of money needed to move Newtok to a safer place.

Our proposal is to pursue a similar lawsuit against a number of oil companies and, in winning such a lawsuit, have them to pay for the entire cost of relocating the Newtok village to Mertarvik, about nine miles from Newtok. This cost would include funds for building supplies and transportation. We will also have them pay for the cost of reconstructing the shorelines by bringing in boulders to place around the island. By doing so, we would hope to reduce the rate of erosion from 70 feet per year to 30 feet or less.

Additionally, we would need to clean up all of the waste currently covering Newtok, as well as the landfill that is already underwater. To do this, we would consult with professional institutes such as the Ocean Conservancy ( Such organizations have led international costal clean-ups and could offer us advice on how to most safely, effectively, and cost-efficiently clean up the underwater landfill on Newtok's coastline.

Although there is no permanent solution for saving the structures of the village of Newtok from being engulfed by the ocean in the following years to come, there are solutions for relocating the inhabitants currently occupying Newtok.


Newtok needs help. Global warming and erosion are destroying it at a rapid rate. If appropriate action is not taken, the village will disappear. Its surrounding ecosystem will be damaged and its culture will be destroyed. With 70 feet of coastline annually wasting away, Newtok will be gone in ten years. Both halibut and phytoplankton are being affected negatively. There is no reason for a community to disappear if there is a way of saving it. Time is short; erosion is occurring constantly. One short-term solution would be for the State of Alaska to intervene until court classes are settled. The State of Alaska could apply for federal stimulus loans on behalf of Newtok. The ultimate solution is to relocate Newtok's population to Mertarvik.