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Climate Change Survival: Choose Your Own Adventure

Telling and sharing stories, from the scientific to the personal, is one the most important tools we have to survive climate change. Stories help us to share facts, knowledge, and experiences about the causes and effects of a warming world. But more than just educational tools, stories are how we make sense of the world...

Telling and sharing stories, from the scientific to the personal, is one the most important tools we have to survive climate change. Stories help us to share facts, knowledge, and experiences about the causes and effects of a warming world. But more than just educational tools, stories are how we make sense of the world we live in. The story you read in the newspaper or the documentary you watch on Netflix holds the immense ability to shape what we see and don’t see. Those visibilities and invisibilities shift our perspectives. And it’s those perceptions upon which we base our actions.

We are at a point today where every decision we make counts in deciding what America’s climate change story will be–including the fundamental decision of how we tell climate change stories. In the article and video below, Explorer Victoria Herrmann presents a story of hope and heroes from Shaktoolik, Alaska as part of her research project America’s Eroding Edges. The talk, given on June 23, 2017 at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC, is part of the Creative Mornings series.


Do any of you remember Choose Your Own Adventure books from when you were younger?

For those of you who have never heard of the series, Choose your Own Adventure put you, the reader, as the protagonist. You’d be on some mission, and throughout the book, you would have to make choices to guide the plot and ultimately the ending of your story. You may be on a mission to find the lost city of Atlantis and you get to a page with two options for how to continue. Do you enter the mysterious sea cave on the left (to go page 43) or do you follow a merman (go to page 51). You’d choose and then you keep going, decision after decision, until you read the dreaded page that ends in the big, bolded THE END.

In a way, Choose your Own Adventure is the ultimate survival book. The series is all about keeping yourself and the story alive for as long as you can by choosing what seems to be the most sensible answer to a ten-year-old, which, inevitably, is to always follow the merman. In the spirit of Creative Morning’s theme of survival this month, we’re going play our own three-part Choose Your Own Adventure with all of you as the protagonist. You guys ready?

You are a team of storytellers, researchers, and explorers, and National Geographic has brought you here to their headquarters this morning because they need your help. They want to tell America’s climate change story, but they aren’t sure what that is.

Your mission: to figure it out. You must travel across the country to listen, learn, and see how sea level rise, shoreline erosion, and extreme storms are affecting America’s coastal communities.

Your first assignment: travel 3,600 miles north to Shaktoolik, Alaska.

Credit: Eli Keene

To get to Shaktoolik, you first take a flight from Washington DC across the country to Seattle, then up to Anchorage, then further north to Nome, then a 45-minute prop plane ride around Norton Sound on Alaska’s western coastline. On the final flight of the trip, it’s difficult to tell what’s water and what’s land. From above nothing seems solid–including the 1-mile sand and gravel spit where Shaktoolik sits. Your plane finds a narrow gravel landing strip between the Sound and River, and as you approach the runway the threat to the village is obvious.

Shaktoolik’s location in between two bodies of water leaves the community vulnerable to erosion and extreme flooding from both sides. In normal years, ice forms around the coast of Shaktoolik, creating a barrier between homes and waves. But global warming is happening twice as fast in Alaska compared to warming here in DC. Warmer air and water temperatures have melted Shaktoolik’s natural defense – last winter, no ice formed in front of the community.

logs on beach
Credit: Eli Keene

With no ice, waves now crash directly onto the beach, which is covered with hundreds of dried, paling logs, washed ashore from the mouth of the Yukon Delta further south. Storm surges drive those logs into the village, damaging homes, buildings, and critical infrastructure.

When a storm is combined with river flooding, the village becomes a temporary island, stranding its residents and requiring evacuation to the elevated school building or an airlift to another town. And while an evacuation here in the mid-Atlantic takes on average two hours in an extreme weather event, in Shaktoolik it can take five days. With no escape route, a 50-year storm event will drown the community.

You want to learn more about these threats to Shaktoolik while in town. Graciously, Gary Bekoalok, a community member and construction worker, has invited you up river to his cabin to talk about the long history of his village’s vulnerability. Just as you are about to board his boat, Kirby Sookiayak rides by on his four-wheeler and offers to show you the history of the village by taking you to the old site.

On the way in, you voted on this first decision in our Choose Your Own Adventure journey. Do you:

(1)  Stay the course and travel up river with Gary or

(2) Climb on the back of Kirby’s four-wheeler and visit the old site of Shaktoolik?

… We’re going up river.

You get in the boat with Gary and start your journey, snaking through an impossibly wavy river system. You see swooping bald eagles and melting permafrost along the way–see is maybe too passive a word for your experience with melting permafrost. It looks a lot like dark brown mud falling into the river, but you can feel its power. It’s emanates a coldness that you’ve never experienced.

Credit: Eli Keene

Leaving the permafrost behind, you arrive at Gary’s cabin. He’s building it from reclaimed wood from the village dump. Gary pours you a hot cup of coffee from his Theromos and in the quiet of his camp, begins to thinks about what’s next for his village. “One day we will have a catastrophic event,” he says, “just a matter of time.”

Shaktoolik is identified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as one of four villages in Alaska that are at the highest risk of becoming uninhabitable from flooding and erosion. Shaktoolik will need to relocate further inland in order to survive as an intact community–but it won’t be the first time Shaktoolik has moved. About two miles down the road from the edge of Shaktoolik’s current town site sits an array of abandoned wooden buildings. Beach erosion has crept up to these buildings over the years, and some of them now teeter over the sand. This is what residents commonly refer to as Old Site—where the Bureau of Indian Affairs school was built in the 1930s. This was the location of Shaktoolik for some thirty years, before storm damage and erosion forced the community to move up the road to the current location.

Man sitting
Credit: Eli Keene

Gary continues, “Yeah, I guess you could call it experience. Before old site, not the site that you can walk down to, the village was right back here, about two miles that way. So the government built that school down there, and the village moved down there, and from there they moved to the site we now occupy. So in 100 years we’ve moved twice already–pretty well experienced. It’s a very old community, a lot of history. A lot of history, the land the people have a lot of ties with the land historically.”

Shaktoolik’s two moves are a reminder that, in spite of ecological hazards, the community’s strong social cohesion and traditional knowledge passed down from generation to generation have made it resilient. They have proven themselves capable of adapting to even the most disastrous survival situations.

You get back from Gary’s cabin around dusk and begin to walk down Shaktoolik’s only road. It’s lined with brightly painted houses in vivid shades of turquoise, green, red, blue, and purple. You spot the state-of-the-art school building where you’ll be sleeping and the bustling community center, complete with a slushy machine and pool table. On summer evenings like tonight, the tundra landscape is dotted with parents filling buckets with berries while kids play on trampolines, making use of the last rays of sunlight before curfew. The 260 mostly Inupiat people that call the village home are warm and welcoming—you can’t walk for five minutes without someone stopping you to say hello.

Shaktoolik’s mayor, Eugene Asicksik, is no exception. Eugene has the tendency to check in daily, pulling up on his four-wheeler to say hi. Over the course of these daily stops, he’s walked you through a long list of community-driven improvement projects. “This community put in our own water and sewer,” he tells you, “and we’ve got windmills with 200 kilowatts generating capacity.” Shaktoolik has clearly built up its internal problem-solving capacity. And it’s this capacity that led the Shaktoolik Native Corporation to construct the berm, a high wall of gravel and debris on the beach, for protection against the storms.

man on four wheeler
Credit: Eli Keene

For that story, Eugene sends you to the second story of the Native Corporation’s grocery store to meet the Corporation’s manager, Fred Sagoonick, to really understand its building. But you just want to get down to the beach yourself and see the berm. Do you:

(1)  Ignore Eugene and go to the beach

(2)  Go to the Village Corporation to talk to Fred?

… How many want to ignore Eugene? And how many want to talk to Fred?

Option (2):

You walk out to the end of the village to a two-story building and climb the stairs. Unsure which door is right, you knock and hope for the best. Fred answers, and when you ask about the berm he pulls out map upon map of Shaktoolik’s geography. But it’s not the physical state of Shak that Fred wants to talk about. It’s the funding.

“Yeah it is frustrating having these meetings after meetings after meetings and nothing gets done,” Fred begins, “And so the last couple of years the city has taken it on as its own to actually start doing something, which is the berm that you see out there. If we tried to put that out to bid and we went through the proper channels it would’ve taken years to taken done because of the processes because the village corporation owns the subsurface of this area all the way over to the end of the airport we were able to do it in house. You need the gravel? Go ahead, we’ll donate it. It protects our business but also the shareholders that live in the village. And the thing that I’ve advocated over the years and thank g-d they finally listened, the only way you start getting media attention is if you start doing things on your own. The city built the berm, and there it is, the media has come around. Now you’ve also got these, I told you awhile ago, you have these agencies come and see what we’re doing. If you get things started people will pay attention.”

man and woman at table
Credit: Eli Keene

The high gravel mound runs the length of the village will help buy Shaktoolik much needed time. With the ice gone, the berm is the only thing that stands between the village and the waves and driftwood. It ultimately won’t be enough to save it, but the strength and resilience of the community behind it might be if given the financial and technical resources they need to build anew. “We know that sooner or later we will have to move. We’re fighting against the rising tide,” Fred tells you.

It’s been an amazing time, one of your favorite assignments yet, but it’s time that you come back to D.C. and tell National Geographic and an auditorium filled with people, what you learned? Do you:

(1)  Tell a story of the victims of climate change: Shaktoolik as an imperiled village on the front lines of climate change.

(2)  The a story of the heroes of climate change: Shaktoolik as an at-risk community, but one with a vision and strong champions that are actively saving their homes?

I chose option 2.

Over the past year and a half, my research partner and I have traveled across the United States and U.S. Territories to interview hundreds of Americans from Alaska to Alabama to American Samoa. Funded by National Geographic and partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, our aim was to identify what is needed at the national level to support towns in need of relocation away from America’s eroding edges–towns like Shaktoolik.

Credit: Eli Keene

I made the same trip you just did to Shaktoolik in September 2016–across the country to Seattle, then up to Anchorage, further up to Nome, and finally around the Norton Sound. I spoke to Eugene, and Gary, and Fred, and a dozen other community leaders and elders about the existential threat their community faces. Shaktoolik’s residents suffer disproportionately from the effects of greenhouse gases emitted by southern cities. They face a federal government thousands of miles away that often disregards their needs and under-resources requests, especially their need for relocation funds or an evacuation road. And, perhaps above all, the native village bears a long history of discriminatory civil, economic, and cultural policies that have undermined the basic human rights and integrity of Alaska Natives for over a century.

But being victims at the mercy of storms and government funding is a sketch of Shaktoolik’s situation, not of the community itself. It’s a misleading descriptor, and misses the community’s resiliency and self-reliance that we repeatedly saw over the course of our stay. I left Shaktoolik feeling hopeful. The community, symbolized by the self-built berm, embodied such a strong determination and cohesive strength, it proved to me that, if given the right resources, any strong community could rise above the most dangerous of rising tides.

Two weeks after I left Shaktoolik, a photo-journalism team from the New York Times visited as part of their ongoing climate change coverage and chose option one: Shaktoolik as victim. I can only assume from the photos on their site that the reporting team had a similar experience to me and my research partner on the surface. There were shots of children playing near the brightly colored houses and drone footage of the narrow strip of land upon which the village is built. But the article “A Wrenching Choice for Alaska Towns in the Path of Climate Change” painted a radically different narrative than the hope-filled story I came away with. The feature is layered with tropes of loss and vulnerability. It reads as a crisis narrative from the beginning, when Shaktoolik is introduced through a dream where a deadly storm has ruined the community. Shaktoolik’s berm, the most visible representation of its hope, only gets a three-sentence mention in a feature that’s several pages.

Credit: Eli Keene

This disaster narrative may feel a bit uncomfortable, but in a way it’s familiar, right? A distant, vulnerable village in fear of rising tides, residents as victims on the front lines of climate change. It fits a cookie cutter version of how American media reports the impacts of climate change on our coastlines. In the months before “A Wrenching Choice” ran, the Times also published “Nowhere to Go Amid Alaska’s Melting Ice” on the relocation of Shishmaref, Alaska and “Should the United States Save Tangier Island From Oblivion?” on the Chesapeake Bay island’s erosion challenge. Each of these follows a recognizable storyline: a vanishing island, a culture that is slipping into the sea as it rises, and an ensemble of characters unsure of what their future holds. Shaktoolik could stand in for Shishmaref, that could stand in for Tangier Island. In none of these stories does the community hold agency over their future, empowerment, or resiliency.

Telling and sharing stories, from the scientific to the personal, is one the most important tools we have to survive climate change. Stories help us to share facts, knowledge, and experiences about the causes and effects of a warming world. But more than just educational tools, stories are how we make sense of the world we live in. The story you read in the newspaper or the documentary you watch on Netflix holds the immense ability to shape what we see and don’t see. Those visibilities and invisibilities shift our perspectives. And it’s those perceptions upon which we base our actions.

I’m going to repeat that, because it’s really important. The narratives we read, hear, and see informs how we understand climate change, and that understanding dictates whether we act or don’t.

All too often these stories feel far away, and as much as we care about them in the abstract we can feel detached from their realities, not knowing what visibilites and invisibilites to look out for. But the effects of climate change are all around us, we all have our own climate change story to tell, myself included.

Every summer for as long as I can remember, I’d escape the malls and highways of suburbia to live with my Aunt Kathy on the Jersey shore. It was my favorite part of the year. I’d play whiffle ball with my cousins, attempt to surf, and explore backwater bays by bike. Even when storms forced us to take shelter inside—which they did each season—we’d still have fun.

Surrounded by candles, my family would sit at the kitchen table for hours with Jiffy pop. Against a soundscape of wind howling down alleyways and rain whipping against our windows, we’d go around the table sharing stories of the last storm to hit New Jersey.

I was living 200 miles down the coast in Washington D.C. when Hurricane Sandy hit in October 2012. Not being home for what was hyped up to be a big storm, I called my family and friends to check in the day before—they assured me they were prepared for what was coming.

By the time Sandy was through, it would become the worst hurricane to hit my home state on record. It killed 40 people and caused upwards of $30 billion in damage in New Jersey alone.

Watching news coverage of the destruction on the “shattered”  Jersey Shore from D.C., I tried to recognize what had endured and what hadn’t from afar. It was shocking to see the place I grew up, a place I love, devastated in a matter of days.

flooded beach
Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS

News reports from Belmar showed video reporting in front of our driveway obstructed by mountains of sand and the boardwalk in our front yard. The street where my parents first met, 13th Ave, had been badly battered, and Taylor Pavilion, where I often went to meet up with friends on the boardwalk, was nonexistent.

In spite of the devastation wrought by the superstorm, by the time I made it back home a few days after Sandy hit, a spirit of hope had emerged from the destruction. New Jersey had come together like never before in my lifetime. Everyone rallied around the slogan Jersey Strong, a motto of determination to rebuild the Shore. People spray painted it on plywood, quickly screened it onto t-shirts (mine is still tucked away in my closet), and even the New York Times published a “Jersey Strong” article and photo essay. A week after the storm, the narrative shifted from one of shattered destruction and  hopelessness  to strength and hope. Eight months after the storm, Belmar became the first shore town to build back its boardwalk. Sure, there was no electricity in the streetlights that hung overhead and our local ice cream shop operated out of a trailer, but Belmar had turned a story of tragedy into one of community empowerment.

How could you not feel hopeful? With democrats and republicans coming together and Bruce Springsteen blasting born to run on the beach, it was easy to believe that the Jersey Shore would build back, that we would rise above the rising tides.

When we constantly see stories about communities in crisis as sea levels rise and extreme storms like Sandy become more frequent, we come away with preconceived notions that all communities living on the front lines of climate change are victims in need of saving. On America’s eroding edges, there is no hope–the future is presented as an ominously uncertain but seemingly inevitable defeat.

This narrative is wrong, and it is dangerous.

Feeling hopeless about a situation is cognitively associated with inaction and predicts decreased goal-directed behavior. That means that when you perceive a vulnerable community like Shaktoolik as a hopeless victim of climate change, you are less likely to act because the ending seems inevitable. Now imagine that a politician or a policy maker perceives Shaktoolik as hopeless–as a community that doesn’t have agency over their future. They are less likely to act on allocating funding or passing legislation to help Shaktoolik relocate. Climate change adaptation only works when you are hopeful for the future and believe that environmentally vulnerable communities have the agency to act.

So what do we do? We start by telling different stories. Just like in Choose Your Own Adventure, storytelling climate change is a series of choices. We shouldn’t be choosing the storytelling option that fits our preconceived frames of victimization. Rather, at each juncture, we can and should choose the path forward that doesn’t erase a community’s agency or goals.

Credit: Eli Keene

Instead of painting narratives of helpless victims who get labeled as America’s first climate change refugees, we should instead report on the climate change heroes trying to prevent their communities becoming climate change refugees. When people see strength in communities, we can overcome limiting labels like climate change victim and begin to dismantle our prejudices against people in need of resources.  Let’s make the right choice to keep this story going.

We’ve already begun to change the narrative for cities and climate change mitigation. In the aftermath of America’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, city leaders publically committed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Their determination provided the foundation for an optimistic conversation about climate change solutions despite national inaction. Let’s extend that climate of hope to communities along America’s eroding edges by highlighting examples of local solutions.

Communities like Shaktoolik are championing the adaptation solutions that must complement the mitigation triumphs in cities. There are hundreds of stories of America’s sea level rise warriors across red and blue states–I know because I’ve seen them firsthand.

two women
Credit: Eli Keene

In American Samoa, community advocate Andra Samoa is restoring the mangroves in her home village of Lenoe to stop shoreline erosion and bring back a healthy ecosystem. In Miami, Florida, Kilan Ashad-Bishop sits on the city’s Sea Level Rise Committee to ensure Little Haiti has a voice in the decision-making process. And in southern Louisiana, community champions are testing saltwater resistant crops for food security as the Gulf rises.

two women talking
Credit: Eli Keene

As researchers, storytellers, journalists, and advocates, we need to listen to the localized answers and expertise in order to provide them with the support they need. As non-partisan efforts, community adaptations can bond us together as a country and spur national support locally implemented strategies for resilience. And when I say “us” I really mean all of us, because these towns may be the first forced to champion survival solutions to rising tides–but they won’t be the last.

A Union of Concerned Scientists recent report When Rising Tides Hit Home calculates that within 45 years, by 2060, more than 270 coastal US communities–including many that seldom or never experience tidal flooding today–will be chronically inundated given moderate sea level rise. By the end of the century, that increases to 490 communities. At the minimum, this equates to 4.3 million Americans displaced from their homes by 2100. And that’s according to low-end NASA sea level rise predictions. At the high-end, over 13 million people along America’s coastlines will be affected by rising tides.

We are at a point today where every decision we make counts in deciding what America’s climate change story will be–including the fundamental decision of how we tell climate change stories.

Let’s start telling stories of hope and heroes.

I’m the first to admit that hope in America is hard to come by these days. With America now ready to pull out of the Paris Agreement, it’s hard not to feel like America has entered a four or eight-year period of stagnation. But hope is a future-oriented emotion. And, while it’s predisposed to today’s tragedies, hope is based on the belief that the future can be better than today. It’s possible to be hopeful for tomorrow even when things seem hopeless now.

Last month, Belmar reopened the Taylor Pavilion on 5th and Ocean Avenue. Building back the Taylor Pavilion has taken a bipartisan, multi-level effort and almost five years after it was ripped apart by Hurricane Sandy. The news line that morning read: “New Sign of the Jersey Shore’s Resurgence Opens in Belmar.” With a positive narrative, vision, and a bit of Jersey Strong, Belmar rose above the tides. In Shaktoolik, Eugene, Fred, Gary, and the entire community are trying to do the same within a hopeless narrative. If given the right story frame and needed resources, they too will not only survive but thrive in the face of a changing climate, and so will the rest of America.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Victoria Herrmann
Victoria Herrmann is the lead Explorer for America's Eroding Edges, a research and storytelling project on the impacts of climate change on coastal communities, livelihoods, and cultures. She is also the President & Managing Director of The Arctic Institute, where she leads the Institute's research on climate change and community adaptation in Arctic communities.