Emmonak, Yukon River Delta

Emmonak, Yukon River Delta

by | May 20, 2022

Emmonak is a Yup’ik community located in the Yukon River Delta about 14 miles (23 km) upstream from the Bering Sea on the right bank of a tidal distributary channel of the Yukon River called Kwiguk Pass, about 92 miles (148 km) west-southwest of Saint Michaels and 20 miles (32 km) northeast of Nunam Iqua, Alaska. The village historically was called ‘Kwiguk‘, a common Yup’ik word meaning ‘big stream’, and was located 1.4 miles (2.2 km) to the southeast on the left bank of Kwiguk Pass. It was first reported by George R. Putnam of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in 1899. Villagers call themselves ‘Kuigpagmuit’ meaning ‘people from the Yukon River’. Erosion of the river bank forced the village of Kwiguk to be moved in 1964, and it was renamed Emmonak after the local blackfish. The Yukon is the largest river in Alaska, originat­ing in British Columbia and flowing 2,300 miles (3,701 km) to the Bering Sea. The watershed is about 211 million acres (85 million ha) or about one-third of the landmass of Alaska. The suspended sediment load of the Yukon River is the 18th largest in the world and provides over 90 percent of the sediment entering the northern Bering Sea. The Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers have combined to form the seventh-largest delta plain in the world with an area of about 13 million acres (5.4 million ha). The delta region is largely a flat, featureless plain consisting of wet and dry tundra interrupted by innumerable lakes. Many of the lakes have coalesced laterally to form very large bodies of water connected to the sea by a series of ancient river channels. The coastline is extremely varied mostly because of the many distributary channels affected by the tidal range of about 3 feet (0.9 m) and the lateral variability of sediment sources. The village is surrounded by sloughs and channels and low-lying tundra with an elevation of about 15 feet (4.6 m) above sea level, all underlain by poorly consolidated Pleistocene deposits of fine sand and silty clay that extend to depths of about 200 feet (60 m) and are extremely susceptible to erosion.

The Yukon Delta is an area of intensive prehistorical and historical use by Alaska Natives. Evidence of occupation of the lower Yukon Delta and coastal regions dates back approximately 3,000 years to the Norton Tradition of the Yup’ik people. The Norton tradition is an archaeological culture that developed in the Western Arctic along the Alaskan shore of the Bering Strait around 1000 BC and lasted through about 800 AD. The Norton people used flake-stone tools like their predecessors, the Arctic small tool tradition, but they were more marine-oriented and developed new technologies such as oil-burning lamps, clay vessels, and importantly, fishing nets. Norton tradition people used both marine and land resources as part of their subsistence strategy. They hunted caribou and smaller mammals as well as salmon and larger sea mammals. Trade routes with the Chukchi people of Siberia at the Kolyma River predate European contact and when Russian fur traders established artels in the area, an extensive trade network throughout the Norton Sound was well established and Yup’ik people already possessed metal pots, knives, lances, iron, and chewing tobacco. The flow of goods between Alaska and Siberia was so extensive that in 1833, a Russian trading post at Saint Michael was built in hopes of intercepting trade. By the mid to late 19th century, these trade routes were dismantled due to smallpox and influenza epidemics as well as the emergence of Saint Michael as an economic center. Direct trade with Siberia had for the most part been broken during the late 1800s when most necessities were acquired from agents of the Alaska Commercial Company, whalers, or independent traders. By the beginning of the 20th century, a Northern Commercial Company trading post at Kwiguk supplied metal pots, knives, calico, tobacco, and matches to the Yup’ik throughout the re­gion. The first commercial fishery for salmon in the lower Yukon River occurred in 1918. The Carlisle Packing Company started a floating cannery on the Yukon River at Andreafsky and moved it to Kwiguk Pass in 1919 but only operated for two seasons. Relatively large harvests of Chinook, chum, and coho salmon occurred from 1919 to 1921. Much of that harvest occurred outside of the river mouth due to restrictions within the Yukon River itself. The com­mercial fishery was closed from 1925 to 1931 because of concerns for the subsistence fishery. Commercial fishing for Chinook salmon was again allowed in 1932 at a reduced level and has continued since that time, albeit with greatly reduced numbers. Commercial fishing for chum and coho salmon resumed in 1952 and occurred from 1952 to 1954, 1956, and since 1961. The Yup’ik people of Emmonak and the lower Yukon Delta still subsist as their ancestors did on wild animals and plants, and the subsistence lifestyle constitutes an essential component of their identity and culture.

The entrance to Kwiguk Pass is at a major bend in the Yukon River where changes in river morphology, directly and indirectly, control flow volumes through Kwiguk Pass, especially during flood events. River channel migration is a natural process that involves the lateral migration of a river channel across its floodplain creating meanders and ultimately oxbow lakes. This process is mainly driven by the combination of bank erosion and point bar deposition over time. Riverbank avulsion is the rapid removal of material often resulting in the formation of a new river channel. This is a common process in dispersive river systems such as deltas, alluvial fans, and submarine fans where flow channels switch back and forth over time, distributing the sediment and building the delta. As a result, the lower Yukon is constantly experiencing erosion and aggradation of the river shoreline due to channel migration. Since 1972, the Yukon mainstem has migrated to the north forming a densely vegetated point bar and a prominent cutbank at the mouth of Kwiguk Pass. Cutbanks that sharply change direction on the Yukon River are prime locations for ice jam flooding during spring breakup which, when released, can result in riverbank erosion or the formation of new river channels. The greatest concern is that Kwiguk Pass could become the primary channel as the Yukon River continues to shift course to a northern route. In addition to erosion at the entrance to Kwiguk Pass, erosion of the river banks at the community is caused by wave action and currents, including those caused by boat wakes, annual freeze-thaw cycles that reduce soil cohesion, and foot traffic which can destroy vegetation and prevent new growth. Emmonak is located in a region of isolated permafrost, meaning that up to 10 percent of the area may be underlain by perennially-frozen ground. Upon thawing, fine-grained riverbank sediments are more likely to fail than other sediment types. In some villages like Emmonak, land collapse is caused by combined permafrost thaw, flooding, and storm surges that are so catastrophic that they now go by the Yup’ik word ‘Usteq’. The Yukon River Delta, and the Arctic region in general, is warming at an accelerated and unprecedented rate that affects oceans, glaciers, sea ice, and permafrost. The risks and severity of climate impacts are particularly great for coastal communities where the loss of permafrost thaw is exacerbating coastal erosion. Read more here and here. Explore more of Emmonak and the Yukon River Delta here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (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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