Shishmaref, Sarichef Island

Shishmaref, Sarichef Island

by | Oct 30, 2023

Shishmaref is an Iñupiat community situated on Sarichef Island, a barrier island between Shishmaref Inlet to the south and the Chukchi Sea to the north, on the northern coast of the Seward Peninsula in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, about 105 miles (169 km) southwest of Kotzebue and 73 miles (117 km) northeast of Wales, Alaska. The inlet was discovered in 1816 by Lieutenant Otto von Kotzebue of the Imperial Russian Navy while exploring on the brig Rurik and named after the ship’s navigator Lieutenant Glieb S. Shishmarev. Sarichef Island was named at the same time for Vice-Admiral Gavrila A. Sarichev, who later led the compilation of the Atlas of the Northern Part of the Pacific Ocean. Shishmaref Inlet is navigable by shallow draft barges and tugs. The entrance is shallow and impassable during storms. There are no docks, and the shores are soft and muddy. The inlet is usually free of ice during July, August, and September. Arthur J. Collier of the U.S. Geological Survey explored the area in 1900, and the following year, Sarichef Island became a logistics center for mining activities on Ear Mountain to the south. A post office was established in the village which was named after the inlet.

Sarichef Island is part of the Shishmaref barrier island chain that extends more than 120 km along the low-lying coastal plain of northwest Seward Peninsula between Cape Prince of Wales to the west and Cape Espenberg to the east. Individual islands within the chain range in length from 6 to 25 miles (10-40 km) and generally increase in width from west to east. The coastal waters of northwest Seward Peninsula receive no significant terrestrial sediment inputs, and the nearshore sediment budget is derived mostly by erosion and redeposition of inner shelf and coastal bluff sediments. Nearshore sediments are transported alongshore by the Alaska Coastal Current. The barrier islands have broad wave-dissipative profiles typical of regions with a small tidal range, here estimated to be about 2.6 feet (0.8 m). Wind velocity and direction, and barometric pressure control the sea height during the open water season in the southern Chukchi Sea where the wave fetch can exceed 300 miles (500 km). The passage of low-pressure frontal systems and storms can raise coastal water levels 6 to 10 feet (2-3 m) resulting in erosion of beach ridges across coastal spits and barrier islands.

Barrier islands such as Sarichef can be modified within hours during storm surges that can destroy structures, cut new channels across islands, and redistribute beach sand inland atop back-barrier marshes. The village of Shishmaref is one of many coastal villages in northwest Alaska situated on sand dunes and beach ridges that are subject to wave attack during storms and face the loss of property from erosion. Erosion rates are apparently increasing, linked by climatic models to anthropogenically-accelerated sea-level rise, loss of sea ice, shifting storm tracks, and melting permafrost. Since the 1940s, engineering consultants have proposed a variety of responses to mitigate erosion at Shishmaref including retreat from the eroding bluff margin, the emplacement of gabions or concrete block and rock revetments, beach nourishment, and construction of groins and an offshore shore-parallel breakwater. In cost, the various methods have ranged from $10s to $100s of millions. Relocation off the island will be the most expensive option. In the meantime, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has constructed 2,600 feet (800 m) of revetment to protect the existing structures. Read more here and here. Explore more of Shishmaref and Sarichef Island here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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