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Jun 1, 2019

To the ends of the Earth

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In our first story, we take listeners to a place where no human has been before. Reporter Carolyn Beeler boards an icebreaker to sail along the face of Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier. If Thwaites collapses, it could cause 2 feet of global sea level rise. But glaciologists fear the consequences could also be much worse: Thwaites may be holding back the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, almost like a cork in a wine bottle. If it crumbles into the ocean, the results could be catastrophic.

For our second story, reporter Michael de Yoanna travels to a military radar site in Alaska’s Bering Strait. It’s part of a network of military radars designed to monitor a million miles of airspace around the United States and Canada, guarding against Russian long-range bombers and missiles. Now, though, some of these radars are facing new foes like ice melt, erosion and storm surge. We investigate how climate change is affecting U.S. national security, and how potential foreign adversaries like Russia are preparing to take advantage of it.

Our final story looks at Kivalina, an Alaska Native village above the Arctic Circle. Melting sea ice and storm surge will likely put Kivalina underwater. In fact, the Army Corps of Engineers says it could happen by 2025. With the lives of residents hanging in the balance, reporter Emily Schwing looks into why efforts to relocate Kivalina keep failing, and whether state and federal agencies are equipped to support climate change refugees.

Credits

Our Partners

The story from Antarctica was produced by Carolyn Beeler, an environment reporter at PRI’s The World. The story from Alaska’s Bering Strait was produced by Michael de Yoanna, an investigative reporter at KUNC in Greeley, Colorado. The final story from Kivalina, Alaska, was produced by Reveal’s Emily Schwing.

This week’s show was edited by Brett Myers.

Special thanks to Peter Thomson and Andrea Crossan at the The World. Thanks to The International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration and everyone aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer research vessel. And thanks also to KUNC Public Radio in Greeley, Colorado.

Our production managers are Mwende Hinojosa and Najib Aminy. Original score and sound design by Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, who had help from Kaitlin Benz.
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
Al Letson: So for the past couple of weeks, I've been coming on to this podcast to talk about our May membership drive. This is the very last week of our campaign and I can't tell you how much it means to me, how much it means to my colleagues, how much it means to our journalism to have your support. This work that we do, it takes time and it cost a lot of money. The stories we bring you every week, they're made possible by you, our listeners. You're the engine that makes this whole thing run and we need you so badly right now. Because we have so many more stories to share with you but in order to do that, we need your help. This is the last week that we're offering our Reveal t-shirts to new members who sign up and donate at least eight dollars a month. To score your own truly sublime piece of podcast swag, just text the word, REVEAL to 474747. Becoming a member is that easy, just text the word, REVEAL to 474747. You have my sincere thanks, I love you, you love me, let's make it official. Because there's always more to the story but it can't be told without you.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. And today we are going to the ends of the Earth to report on climate change. We begin in Antarctica. That's the sound of penguins nearby Thwaites Glacier. Thwaites is a huge glacier, more than a half a mile thick and the size of Great Britain. And it's no surprise, it's melting. Many scientists are predicting that Thwaites maybe doomed to crumble into the ocean. If that happens, global sea levels could rise up to two feet just from this one glacier. But that's not even the bad news, because this glacier is holding back another colossal sheet of ice. Kind of like a cork in a wine bottle, if all of it slips into the ocean, sea levels could rise by 11 feet.

 

Al Letson: Few people have ever stepped on Thwaites Glacier and no one has ever traveled by sea along the glacier's front until now. A group of scientists spent two months aboard a research vessel to study Thwaites up close, reporter Carolyn Beeler from the public radio show, The World, joined them in this first of its kind expedition.

 

Carolyn Beeler: My journey starts on a windy day at the end of January at a port near the southern tip of Chile. I walk across a gangplank to board an ice breaker the length of a football field.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Here we are.

 

Carolyn Beeler: With nearly 60 scientists, staff and crew.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Just walked on the ship, my new home for eight weeks.

 

Carolyn Beeler: In port, the Nathaniel B. Palmer feels solid and stable like a floating college dorm with a cafeteria and bright green flooring. But as we sail south from Chile and through open ocean, 20 foot swells posit around like it's a little dingy. One day, about a week into the trip, keyboards are skittering across desks in the computer lab. Chairs crash from one side of room to the other. I get thrown out of the one I'm sitting in.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Ow.

 

Speaker 4: You okay?

 

Carolyn Beeler: Yeah, there's no way to stand up. The bruise on the back of my head is my first reminder this trip of the power of the ocean but it won't be my last. This same ocean is responsible for melting Thwaites Glacier. Winds are now pushing warm ocean waters up underneath part of the glacier that extends out into the sea. If that part breaks off, the entire glacier would be vulnerable. Early into our journey I talked to Rob Larter, the ships chief scientist about research suggesting the collapse of Thwaites is inevitable.

 

Rob Larter: The suggestion was that Thwaites Glacier had already passed the point of no return and whatever you do now, the retreats is really inevitable.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Rob works for the British Antarctic Survey. He's traveled to Antarctica nearly two dozen times.

 

Rob Larter: If they're right, the question then becomes how fast is it going to retreat, how fast are we going to lose that ice?

 

Carolyn Beeler: If Thwaites collapses it would push up sea levels around the world. Entire neighborhoods in Boston, where I live, could be underwater. From Miami to Mumbai, cities across the globe would need to plan for that sea level rise. But Rob says ...

 

Rob Larter: I don't think everybody's convinced that it is necessarily inevitable at the moment.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Are you convinced that it's inevitable?

 

Rob Larter: I'm keeping an open mind. I think I hope it's not as bad as some of us fear it is because I've got teenage children and I'd like them to live in a world where it's not a disaster scenario.

 

Carolyn Beeler: As we sail south, the specter of this glacier looms over me. This research is sobering but actually doing it is also exciting. No one's ever been in front of the main part of Thwaites Glacier, where we plan to go.

 

Peter Sheehan: Basically, we have no idea what the ocean looks like there.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Peter Sheehan works the University of East Anglia in the U.K. He's never been to Antarctica before. Once we get to Thwaites, he'll be measuring how much warm water is reaching it for the very first time.

 

Peter Sheehan: So that is really exciting. That's kind of like harking back to the ancient age of Antarctic exploration, we're going somewhere that no one's ever been before.

 

Carolyn Beeler: No one's ever been there before because the sea in front of much of Thwaites is usually covered in ice. We break through some of that ice en route to the glacier. The ship slams its heavy nose on thick slabs of ice to crack them, then sails through the black gash of open water. The best place to record this is inside the bow of the ship. I can feel when we go over it, you can sort of feel vibrations of the ship going over the ice. This is also where the food is stored. So I'm watching some giant bottles of olive oil shake as I record. And then you can hear the ice thumping and then scraping against the front of the ship.

 

Carolyn Beeler: The shaking stops as we get closer to the glacier. The area is nearly ice free. The morning we're set to arrive at Thwaites, I set my alarm for 4:00 AM and get out of my bunk to walk up four flights of stairs to the bridge. And there it is, a cliff of ice, six or seven stories tall. The captain and chief mate are silently navigating along its face. It's still dark and foggy and they use a swat light to look for stray icebergs. It's snowing and the beam of the spotlight on top of the ship is lighting up a column of swirling snow.

 

Peter Sheehan: Morning.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Peter is working the night shift and comes to look out the window with me. The long wall of white ice in front of us almost glows in the darkness.

 

Peter Sheehan: I didn't expect to be getting so close to it. It's huge. It looks like lots of the icebergs that we've seen, this just keeps going. Maybe it's the light, it looks kind of mystical. That kind of blue tinge over everything.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Yeah, I'm whispering and I don't know why.

 

Peter Sheehan: You can Google image everything these days. So if you asked me to picture an ice shelf 24 hours ago, this is what I'd have thought it would have looked like but there's something different about seeing it in person. That sense of reverence, you're whispering and you don't know why. Nobody whispers in front of Google images.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Nobody has been where we are right now before.

 

Peter Sheehan: No.

 

Carolyn Beeler: As the sun rises, the ship wakes up and people stream up here to the bridge. The mood shifts from reverential to celebratory, almost like a party. Scientists lean against the railing on the catwalk that wraps around the bridge, joking about how they're itching to drop scientific instruments into the sea here.

 

Speaker 7: I want to throw something overboard. What's the temperature?

 

Carolyn Beeler: Remember this is the first time humans have sailed across the front of the glacier like we're doing now. And we're close, about the length of a football field away. But it feels even closer. Almost close enough to reach out and touch its chalky surface or the cracks that glow aquamarine. Six decks up, we can't quite see over the top of the glacier. I watch the ice go by for awhile with Rob.

 

Rob Larter: It's fantastic, this is a critical boundary in the world today. This is where rapid change is really happening and we're actually standing and looking at the bit that's rapidly changing.

 

Carolyn Beeler: As the day progresses, the mood shifts again to something more somber. Because we start to actually see those rapid changes. Ice shelves usually look like vertical cliffs, walls of ice, solid and several stories tall with flat tops, like a butcher block table. But as we travel along the glacier face, Thwaites looks anything but solid. Instead, it's sloping toward the sea, almost like a sand dune.

 

Rob Larter: It's curving down, gradually rolling off. The actual cliffs are not very high at all.

 

Lars Boehme: So it doesn't look like ice shelves I've seen before.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Like Rob, Lars Boehme from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, spends the next few days puzzling over the shape of the ice sheet. He's struck by the parts of the glacier that look jagged and bumpy, like piles of giant rocks covered in blankets of snow.

 

Lars Boehme: This one looks like big icebergs and ice cubes just frozen together. It looks very chaotic.

 

Carolyn Beeler: And did that surprise you?

 

Lars Boehme: Absolutely.

 

Carolyn Beeler: And that surprised me. That even the experts weren't expecting this, that the glacier would so obviously look like it's falling apart. While we're standing up on the bridge, sonar equipment attached to the bottom of the ship is mapping the sea floor below us for the first time.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Test one, two. Okay, do you think we can really hear ourselves?

 

Joey Patterson: Maybe.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Late in the afternoon, as fog cocoons the ship, Joey Patterson tries to bounce her voice off the lumpy glacier face in front of us.

 

Joey Patterson: Whoop! I don't know, did you hear it?

 

Carolyn Beeler: I heard it [crosstalk] We're moving away though, we're going to lose it.

 

Joey Patterson: Woo! That was amazing. You can bounce your voice off the glacier, Johan.

 

Johan: Yeah, it's an echo.

 

Joey Patterson: Do it, let's hear it.

 

Johan: Ho!

 

Joey Patterson: Ho!

 

Johan: [inaudible]

 

Joey Patterson: Woo!

 

Carolyn Beeler: Joey would later tell me, this was a weird moment for her. Both thrilling and sad. Because this jumbled glacier in front of us, it's almost like staring climate change in the face. A few minutes later, she and marine ecologist, Gui Bortolotto spot a corner of ice nearly cleaved off the glacier.

 

Gui Bortolotto: That tiny part looks like it's going to fall at any second.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Yeah.

 

Carolyn Beeler: He jokes that he can almost blow it away.

 

Gui Bortolotto: This one ... that one too.

 

Carolyn Beeler: For Peter, seeing the jumbled up face of the glacier made climate change feel less academic.

 

Peter Sheehan: The knowing part hasn't changed. I know that we're not in a particularly good position. That hasn't changed. But yeah, it maybe feels a bit more real now.

 

Carolyn Beeler: A few days later, the map of the sea floor right in front of the glacier is filled in. Peter and other oceanographers have measured the temperature of the water in front of Thwaites for the very first time. All of this will feed into models that will predict how soon Thwaites might collapse and how much it will add to global sea levels when it does. But the questions that Lars Boehme asks, is when we're going to do something about it.

 

Lars Boehme: We have to change policies. The question is how long will it take because the longer we wait, the worse these impacts will be.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Back at the beginning of this trip, chief scientist, Rob Larter told me he was keeping an open mind about whether the collapse of Thwaites was inevitable. At the end of our cruise, I ask him that same question again.

 

Carolyn Beeler: There have been studies published suggesting that Thwaites is past its tipping point and its collapse is inevitable. Do you think that is the case?

 

Rob Larter: Do I think it's the case? I think that's more likely than not, yeah.

 

Carolyn Beeler: And does he think the entire Mexico sized piece of ice around Thwaites will also collapse?

 

Rob Larter: I guess if you're asking me to project hundreds of years into the future, unless there's some amazing change where we manage to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere then I think, yeah, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is ultimately doomed, yeah.

 

Carolyn Beeler: Very roughly, that would mean the storm surges that flooded lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy would become permanent. The new baseline sea level. For Rob, the bigger question now is how fast that'll happen. After more than two months away, I fly back home to Boston, where the airport is surrounded by the Atlantic. Looking out the window at the runaway is dead ending into the ocean. What I saw in Antarctica feel hard to shake.

 

Al Letson: Carolyn Beeler is a reporter for the public radio show, The World. You can find more of her stories from Antarctica at theworld.org/antarctica. Up next, we go from the bottom of the globe to almost the very top. How melting ice is changing global military strategy in the Arctic. That's next on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Speaker 12: This is the roof of the world, the vast desolate stretch of polar wasteland called the Arctic.

 

Al Letson: This Air Force documentary tells the story of a monumental construction project. In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and Canada worked together to build a series of radars all the way across the Arctic. Officially, they were known as the distant early warning line.

 

Speaker 12: New line they called it. Starting in the west at a point above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, it would stretch across Alaska and the Canadian Arctic for 3,000 miles.

 

Al Letson: Dulan radars acted as kind of a trip wire. Looking out for Soviet long range bombers because the quickest route to attack went over the top of the Earth.

 

Speaker 12: If modern bombers carrying modern bombs over the Polar Ice Cap were to cross the Arctic Circle at midnight, they could destroy virtually any Canadian or American city before dawn.

 

Al Letson: And nearly 70 years later, some of these same radar sites are still in use, still crucial to international security. Reporter Michael de Yoanna, from the public radio station, KUNC in Colorado, has been investigating how climate change is threatening some of these radars, imposing new risks to the national security of the United States.

 

Michael d.: Major Christopher Perham escorts me through a locked metal gate. He's with the Alaska Air National Guard at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage.

 

Christopher P.: I do this wrong, I do this wrong every day because I have two different codes.

 

Michael d.: At a security door he fumbles to punch numbers into a keypad.

 

Christopher P.: I tell you the amount of like that it takes to get in here, like security and stuff, it's just crazy.

 

Michael d.: Major Perham is wearing a green flight suit with a patch that says, "Eyes of the North." Inside the building he takes me down a long hallway past framed photos of old military aircraft. Then to another security door entering more codes.

 

Christopher P.: [inaudible] and then what you'll see here is the operations floor, kind of NORAD style, yeah, you see down.

 

Michael d.: Inside a square room about 40 troops in American and Canadian uniforms huddle around flashing computer screens. This is 176th Air Defense Squadron. 24 hours a day, every single day of the year, troops are in this room keeping watch.

 

Christopher P.: We have approximately 40 operators on a day to day basis that conduct the mission. We have several sections, we've got identification, we have surveillance.

 

Michael d.: By surveillance, Major Perham means using radars to monitor more than a million miles of airspace over and around the Arctic. They're not just looking for Russian bombers, they're finding them and scrambling American and Canadian fighter jets. Outside this building, F-22 Raptors sit at the ready.

 

Christopher P.: So if you turn around, there's a wall of stars that we have and every time we conduct an intercept, we put a star up.

 

Michael d.: As I turn around, I see plaques, a lot of them. They line the wall, each small thin block of rectangular wood represents an intercept. A time when fighter jets were sent up to meet and potentially shoot down foreign aircraft.

 

Christopher P.: A snapshot in time of where we intercepted, what type of aircraft we intercepted and the date.

 

Michael d.: These plaques go back decades, almost like a timeline of tensions between the two countries.

 

Michael d.: '89, '90, '91. So that's the end of the Cold War.

 

Christopher P.: Right, that was the end of the Cold War.

 

Michael d.: The plaques slow down around the time the Berlin Wall came down. Then stopped completely by 1994.

 

Christopher P.: We had guys sitting here for this mission intercepting Russian aircraft and nothing. And we were just practicing and practicing and practicing and practicing.

 

Michael d.: But then in the early 2000s, I notice the plaques pick back up again.

 

Christopher P.: And then we started intercepting more Russian aircraft as you see.

 

Michael d.: In fact, just last week in an unusual show of force, more than a half dozen Russian bombers and fighter jets were intercepted off the coast of Alaska. Thanks in large part to NORAD radars. But three radar sites at the center of this operation are now in jeopardy because of climate change. Sea ice used to protect them, along with the support buildings and airstrips needed to keep them running. But now that Arctic ice is melting, storm surges endanger the radar sites. The Air Force says it's all happening way faster than predicted. It will cost a small fortune to protect these radars. At just one location, a mile long seawall made of stone will total $48 million. And costs for the other two sites haven't even been released yet.

 

Michael d.: I want to get my eyes on one of these radars up close. I meet Air Force Colonel Dan Lemon at the base's airport. So Colonel, I'm recording, can I record as we walk to the plane?

 

Dan Lemon: Absolutely.

 

Michael d.: Tell me where we're going.

 

Dan Lemon: We're going to Tin City, it's along the Bering Sea.

 

Michael d.: I planned to visit radar at sea level. One of the ones threatened by climate change but because of weather and logistics, Colonel Lemon says we're going to Tin City.

 

Dan Lemon: On a clear day, you can see Russia from there. Hopefully, the pilots have told me that it's supposed to be a clear day. But in Alaska the weather could change on a dime but let's hope it keep that way.

 

Michael d.: Tin City is a spectacular radar station. Perched high atop a mountain and almost invisible because it's painted white like the snow.

 

Dan Lemon: [inaudible]

 

Michael d.: We get into a small plane with two propellers, two pilots, two P.R. staffers and the guy Colonel Lemon calls Chief, his right hand man. I sit facing the Colonel and we just chat. I asked him what he thinks of Alaska.

 

Dan Lemon: People always say you either love it or hate it and I love it.

 

Michael d.: You love it.

 

Dan Lemon: Yeah.

 

Michael d.: What's to love about it?

 

Dan Lemon: Everyone's really friendly, small town feel. Alaskans just kind of make you feel like you're part of the family. And definitely God's country though. You'll see that today.

 

Michael d.: As we take off, we get a glimpse of Mount Denali, North America's highest peak, rising from the clouds. Then veer west towards the Bering Sea. Looking at the window, I see chains of nameless mountains and twisting frozen rivers that stretch to the horizon. As much as I'm flying over the middle of nowhere, I'm at the heart of a military universe. Air Force officials shared a map to help me understand why. It shows Anchorage at the center of the world, Berlin is a nine hour flight away. Moscow and Beijing are only about eight hours away. That's because the Arctic is a shortcut to the other side of the globe. And enemy aircraft using that shortcut could become harder to track if any of these radars are knocked out by climate change.

 

Ray Mabus: Everything you read, all the signs that you see is that we have underestimated the speed at which it is going to happen.

 

Michael d.: Former Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus.

 

Ray Mabus: This is not theoretical, this is a danger today.

 

Michael d.: In March, Mabus and 58 former high ranking military and national security leaders wrote a letter to President Trump. Admirals, Generals, Secretaries of State and Defense all signed the letter. It includes the line, climate change is real, it's happening now, it's driven by humans and it is accelerating. The group was responding to news that the President had created a new team to review military intelligence documents and questioned any instance where climate change was mentioned as a threat to national security.

 

Ray Mabus: It's like okay, we don't like the facts. So we're going to try to muddy the waters. We're going to try to change the science here.

 

Michael d.: This isn't new. In 2017, the Trump administration stripped most climate change references from the defense department report on national security strategy. Mabus and other leaders are beside themselves because they believe the President is ignoring one of the biggest threats facing the country. Not just in the Arctic but everywhere.

 

Ray Mabus: If we don't do something to reverse or slow the sea level rise, the largest Navy base in the world, Norfolk, will go underwater. It will disappear and it will disappear within the lifetimes of people alive today.

 

Michael d.: It's not just former leaders who are worried. In January, the defense department identified 79 military bases at risk because of climate change. The threats include drought, wildfires, expanding deserts, and in the case of those Alaskan radars, flooding and thawing permafrost. Finally, our plane arrives at the edge of it all. The slow black waters of the Bering Sea. Colonel Lemon points out the window at a mountain.

 

Dan Lemon: That's where the radar is. Right on top of that.

 

Michael d.: It's a little ball on top of the mountain.

 

Dan Lemon: Yes, yes.

 

Michael d.: From here it looks like a golf ball perched atop a white pyramid. I ask how people get up to it.

 

Dan Lemon: Yeah, very carefully. But if the weather's good, we'll go up there.

 

Michael d.: At the base of the mountain is Tin City, which isn't a city at all. It's a shoebox shaped military installation. The plane bounces down softly on a gravel landing strip, a P.R. officer jokes.

 

Speaker 17: Oh damn, no cellphone reception.

 

Dan Lemon: What? That's un-American, what the heck?

 

Michael d.: As the plane door opens, a single gust of wind sucks the heat out from the cabin. I zip up my coat and follow the others down the steps onto icy runway. There are blue skies and it's cold, about eight degrees Fahrenheit. We make our way to a large garage and come face to face with red tank looking vehicle.

 

Dan Lemon: It's a mini-bulldozer. All right, that can take passengers too.

 

Michael d.: Colonel Lemon tells me it's called a PistenBully. This is how we're going to get to the top of the mountain, to the golf ball. I pile in back with the Colonel, his chief and the P.R. officers. The cabin is basically a box with two benches facing one another. It's tight, we squeeze in shoulder to shoulder.

 

Michael d.: I think this vehicle is like out of the movie "Transformers" or something.

 

Michael d.: They tell me the journey will take about an hour along a steep winding road carved into the side of the mountain. Just wide enough to fit the bully going one way, up or down and nothing else. The bully rocks as the driver hops into the cab which is separate from us. So the Colonel speaks to him by walkie-talkie.

 

Speaker 18: Is everybody ready?

 

Dan Lemon: Ready.

 

Michael d.: A plow on the front clears snow and ice as we begin rumbling up the road. About a year ago Colonel Lemon says a huge storm iced over the door that leads to the radar. Troops had to be called in to hack away at it. Anytime there's a problem with the radar here, there's a problem at NORAD too.

 

Dan Lemon: They don't like sites being down and we try to get them back up for them.

 

Michael d.: The PistenBully creaks and churns as we climb switchback after switchback. The views get more harrowing. I'm on the inside, the mountainside. The Colonel's chief is sitting on the other side, looking straight down.

 

Speaker 20: When you look down at the edge of the track is on the edge of the cliff.

 

Michael d.: He says the track is right off the edge of the cliff. Several of us sit back deeper in our seats, gripping our gear tighter.

 

Speaker 18: Everybody kind of hang on, we're going to go down a little hill.

 

Dan Lemon: We're going to go down a little hill, so he said hang on.

 

Speaker 18: And then we'll spin around back into the [inaudible 00:27:43].

 

Dan Lemon: Thank God they told us that, right?

 

Michael d.: The PistenBully comes to rest on a small hill in front of the radar. There's a porch extending out from the doorway that looks almost like cake with layers and layers of vanilla icing spray painted on. Our driver chips away with a shovel before opening the door. We enter the radar room. It's filled with buzzing machinery. I wonder how far across the Bering Strait can the radar see.

 

Michael d.: In terms how powerful the radar is, is it one of the more powerful radars?

 

Dan Lemon: Can I tell him the range?

 

Speaker 21: No, we can't.

 

Dan Lemon: Yeah, that's what I thought.

 

Michael d.: Can't say what the range is.

 

Dan Lemon: No, nope. I know what it is but I'm not telling you. I can't.

 

Michael d.: Is that classified?

 

Dan Lemon: It's classified.

 

Michael d.: Okay.

 

Dan Lemon: Most everything up here is classified. I will tell you that.

 

Michael d.: I climb up a small flight off metal stairs and now I'm under the radar, as close as I'll get to it. Just above my head, electromagnetic waves pulse and travel some classified distance away. Right now, this whirring, whooshing relic is guarding against nuclear attack. And it's connected to a string of other radars doing the same thing. Together, they're that trip wire, that early warning and because of climate change, they're vulnerable.

 

Michael d.: When permafrost is no longer perma, when sea ice just becomes sea, it's not just radars that are made vulnerable. Now there are also huge economic stakes at play. The Coast Guard estimates the Arctic hold 13% of the world's undiscovered oil. A third of the world's undiscovered gas. And about one trillion dollars in gold, platinum and other minerals. As ice melts, many of those riches will become available for the first time ever and Russia is laying claim.

 

Vladimir Putin: [foreign language]

 

Michael d.: Last year in his annual address to the federal assembly, Russian president Vladimir Putin talked about expanding shipping channels in the Arctic, which would trim thousands of miles off merchant trips. By 2025, Putin says, Arctic shipping could grow by 10 times. Russia has also reopened Arctic military bases that have been shuddered since the Cold War. For Republican Senator, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, all of this raises alarms.

 

Dan Sullivan: As the sea ice is receding, our strategic interests as a nation and to be honest our sovereignty as a nation become increasingly important.

 

Michael d.: Senator Sullivan worries the U.S. isn't ready for climate change in the Arctic and that Russia is. He points to icebreakers as an example. Ironically, icebreakers will become more important as sea ice thins because you need them to keep shipping lanes open. And Russia has an Arctic armada.

 

Dan Sullivan: The Russians have 40 icebreakers, some of which are nuclear powered and they're building 13 more. Many of which are weaponized.

 

Michael d.: By contrast, the U.S. only has two icebreakers and they're both four decades old. So while President Trump continues to deny and debate the causes of climate change, here in the Arctic, potential foes like Russia are preparing to take advantage of it, to gain the upper hand. I turned back to former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to see what he makes of what Russia's doing.

 

Ray Mabus: The very notion that they're spending all this effort in the Arctic, I think makes it a far more dangerous place. And it is no longer the case, like it was for a long time, that the Arctic was pretty much non-political. And it was because you just couldn't get there much. There wasn't a way to exploit those minerals on the sea floor or there weren't any shipping lanes. And now because of climate change there is and so the chances of encounters that may go wrong go up. And they go more dramatically the more the ice melts.

 

Michael d.: Back in the PistenBully, the radar fades behind us as we descend the switchbacks. We round a corner and there I get a great view of the Bering Strait. The bully stops on a ridge and we all get out to look. Contractor Jeff Bolds points at two specks out in the middle of the strait, they're about 50 miles away.

 

Jeff Bolds: It's hard to tell but the little dot there [inaudible] poked out front, that's Little Diomede and then the big part is Big Diomede Island. Little Diomede's, America, Big Diomede's, Russia.

 

Michael d.: And beyond that, as I squint my eyes, are mountains that seems to go forever. That's the Russian mainland. Looking at it reminds me of something the former commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Paul Zukunft told me. He compared military strategy in the melting Arctic to a board game. He says Russia is playing high level chess and the U.S. he says, is playing plain old checkers.

 

Al Letson: Michael de Yoanna is a reporter with public radio station KUNC in Greeley, Colorado. Military installations aren't the only thing at risk in Alaska. For our next story, we'll head more than a hundred miles further north to Kivalina, a native village that could soon disappear off the face of the Earth. That's next on Reveal, from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. For our final story, we're traveling to a coastal village in western Alaska above the Arctic Circle. A village that because of climate change could be underwater in less than a decade. It's called, Kivalina. Kids are the first thing you notice in Kivalina, they play outside, they ride all over on snowmobiles and four wheelers. They seem to be everywhere.

 

Emily Schwing: What are you guys doing? Hey Erica.

 

Speaker 26: We're playing.

 

Al Letson: That's reporter Emily Schwing.

 

Emily Schwing: You're playing, what are you playing?

 

Speaker 26: Vampires and humans.

 

Emily Schwing: Vampires and humans, are there vampires in Kivalina?

 

Speaker 26: No. We're just playing.

 

Emily Schwing: You're just playing, okay, phew.

 

Al Letson: The village sits on a sliver of sand and gravel. It's a barrier island just 800 feet wide and about half a mile long with water on each side. A lagoon sits to the east and then a vast stretch of trees, tundra, and rolling snowy hills. To the west is the Chukchi Sea, in the winter the deep blue black water's covered in ice and extends to the horizon.

 

Emily Schwing: It's a microphone, right?

 

Speaker 26: That one.

 

Emily Schwing: Don't yell in it because you'll blow ... If you do that I'm listening, so it hurts my ears.

 

Speaker 26: Hello.

 

Emily Schwing: Hello, well, tell me your name.

 

Speaker 26: I'm [inaudible]

 

Al Letson: This sea ice acts like a buffer, it protects the village from storms. But in a warming climate, there's not as much ice as there used to be. It forms later in the fall and melts earlier in the spring, allowing giant waves to pummel the island. So bit by bit, flooding and erosion are swallowing Kivalina. And the lives of the few hundred people who live here, including these kids are in danger.

 

Speaker 26: Do you know song, "Lost Boy?"

 

Emily Schwing: I don't know that song, do you want to sing it for me?

 

Speaker 26: I don't really know it.

 

Speaker 27: I know a part.

 

Emily Schwing: Yeah, is it a good song?

 

Speaker 26: [singing]

 

Al Letson: The surest way to keep people safe, is to move them permanently, to relocate the village. In fact, residents here have been asking the federal government for help with that since at least the 1960s. Emily is in Kivalina to find out why more than 50 years later, that still hasn't happened.

 

Emily Schwing: I bump along in the back of a four wheeler behind Kelly Holly, she's 30 years old and a mother of five. She had big round cheeks, she wears thick overalls and she drives pretty fast. About a quarter mile from the center of the village we stop so Kelly can show me where her Anka is buried. Anka means grandmother in Inupiaq, the indigenous language people speak here.

 

Kelly Holly: Busy, quiet woman, always there, she used to be cutting caribou or cleaning up. I have a lot of stories but I don't know which one to tell.

 

Emily Schwing: On this side of the landing strip, rows of wooden crosses poke out of the snow. They cast long shadows in the springtime sun. Oh there she is, Louise.

 

Kelly Holly: [inaudible] Holly, yeah.

 

Emily Schwing: Oh, your grandmother was born in 1924.

 

Kelly Holly: Yup and her daughter is right here, my dad's sister. [inaudible] Stalker.

 

Emily Schwing: So this is just like your whole family.

 

Kelly Holly: Yeah.

 

Emily Schwing: Nearly everyone in Kivalina is Alaska native, Inupiaq. They've lived in this region off the land for more than 10,000 years. Hunting's a way of life and main source of meat. Seals, caribou, all kinds of fish.

 

Emily Schwing: I mean, does it make you sad to think that in a hundred years maybe all these gravesites might be gone?

 

Kelly Holly: Yeah.

 

Emily Schwing: It could happen way sooner. The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers estimates that by 2025, all of Kivalina could be entirely underwater in a big storm. That's only six years from now. Kelly's ancestors didn't choose to live here, at least not permanently. The Inupiaq used to spend summers in tents along Kivalina's beach. They'd go fishing and take boats across the lagoon to pick berries. And when winter set in, they'd move inland to hunt caribou for food. In other words, they were semi-nomadic but in 1905 the federal government built a school on the island. And parents were threatened with jail time or losing their kids all together if they didn't send them to school. Ever since, people have lived on this tiny spit of sand and gravel. We take Kelly's bright red four wheeler a few hundred feet around the active runway, to where the Chukchi Sea meets the island. Last fall a storm brought gale force winds. Kelly says giant waves eroded an enormous piece of the beach.

 

Kelly Holly: About 20 feet high and 15 feet of land.

 

Emily Schwing: Going outwards.

 

Kelly Holly: Yeah.

 

Emily Schwing: Okay. She raises her arms about her head to emphasize how big the waves got. The piece of land that washed away was about as long as a pickup truck and as wide as a city bus.

 

Kelly Holly: It came really close to the runway, maybe five feet off the runway, so we're like right there.

 

Emily Schwing: Was it scary?

 

Kelly Holly: It was scary, yeah. It wasn't to where we have to evacuate though.

 

Emily Schwing: There is no evacuation plan that could quickly get people to higher ground. That's because the only way off the island is by boat or plane, which may not be possible during a big storm. As Kelly and I talk the second airplane of the day arrives with a mail delivery and food to keep the local store stocked. Some of the passengers are coming home from doctor's appointments in Anchorage.

 

Emily Schwing: It's kind of weird to be standing right here on the runway.

 

Emily Schwing: It's March, everything is buried under a thick crust of wind buffeted snow. So I can't see the sand or the gravel that washed away but there are hints at what happened. The tops of giant sand bags, half the size of a small car, peek out of the snow. Local volunteers used heavy machinery to pile them here years ago in an effort to protect the runway. This past fall and winter, Kivalina was hit with more than a dozen storms. People saw days of big winds, high waves and there was less ice than normal to protect the shoreline. Residents like Kelly have mixed feelings about what to do.

 

Kelly Holly: I keep thinking like having the [inaudible] to move all of Kivalina. But then my family grew here so I never left yet. I'm not thinking to leave now but I was thinking in the future maybe I should.

 

Emily Schwing: Leaving is complicated. Imagine if your entire community had to move, how would you and your neighbors handle it? How would you decide where to rebuild everything? Schools, houses, local businesses. And how would you pay for it? Way up here, construction costs a fortune. People in Kivalina have been grappling with these issues for decades and working with state and federal agencies to come up with a plan. Find a place where people are safe that also allows for them to preserve their unique culture. But the process is mired in red tape and bureaucracy and the clock is ticking. This spring was one of the warmest ever in Alaska. In March, sea ice on the Bering and Chukchi Seas was record low levels for that time of year. Without that ice to protect them, flooding and erosion in Kivalina are getting worse.

 

Emily Schwing: Hi.

 

Speaker 29: Hi.

 

Emily Schwing: I'm here to visit with your grandmother.

 

Speaker 29: Yeah, she's home.

 

Emily Schwing: Okay cool. Lucy Adams lives in a small gray house that overlooks the Chukchi Sea. She's one of Kivalina's few remaining elders. Outside the door, a wolf pelt hangs in the wind. Next to that, a rabbit pelt and the reddish brown fuzzy skin cut from the lower legs of a caribou. The rest of the caribou is surely tucked away in a giant chest freezer outside the door. Lucy sits at her kitchen table in front of a sewing machine. Slowly piecing together a new lining for her coat. A parkee, she calls it. She was born in 1933. The coffee mug on her table says so, aged to perfection.

 

Emily Schwing: Do you think you live in a good place now? Do you feel safe living here on the island?

 

Lucy Adams: I can't understand you when you talk fast.

 

Emily Schwing: I know, I talk too fast, sorry. Lucy looks at me sideways, scrunches up her nose and shakes her head. Her first language was not English, in was Inupiaq. I was asking if you think that this, the island is a good place to live?

 

Lucy Adams: No, it's not safe anymore. It's eroding, it's getting small, it's not safe to live here. We always just pray to be safe.

 

Emily Schwing: Until there's a plan and government money to help relocate the village, Lucy is stuck. Stuck here where it no longer feels safe but also stuck in limbo.

 

Lucy Adams: It would be good to have running water instead of going back and forth to this water, to cook and to wash dishes.

 

Emily Schwing: Kivalina has never had running water. And since the village needs to be relocated, regional and state leaders won't help install it on the island. This is the case with lots of infrastructure needs. Why beef up a seawall, build a new school, or put in pipes for a water system, if it's all going to flood?

 

Emily Schwing: So this gray bucket by your door here is-

 

Lucy Adams: This is [inaudible] this water.

 

Emily Schwing: Okay, so that's the water.

 

Lucy Adams: [inaudible] drinking water.

 

Emily Schwing: There's a huge 30 gallon gray rubber trash can filled with water next to the door. This water comes from the Kivalina River, seven miles away. Lucy's grandson chops giant chunks of ice out of the river and hauls it home for her with a snowmobile.

 

Lucy Adams: Every day.

 

Emily Schwing: That sounds like a lot of work.

 

Lucy Adams: It is.

 

Emily Schwing: Do you ever dream about having a bathtub or a shower?

 

Lucy Adams: That dream is distant dream. It can't happen.

 

Emily Schwing: Lucy drops her chin to her chest, inspects her handmade shirt, a kuspuk, it's purple, her favorite color. Then she grumbles one more time quietly to herself.

 

Lucy Adams: It can't happen to Kivalina.

 

Emily Schwing: "It can't happen to Kivalina," Lucy says.

 

Lucy Adams: It's just a dream.

 

Emily Schwing: She tells me it's just a dream. Lucy and a lot of other people I talk with in Kivalina are really frustrated they have to keep going without. Without running water, without enough housing, without a school that's big enough for all the kids who live here. By far though, the thing people are most frustrated about is that they're still here living on this island where their lives are in danger. Millie Holly is Kivalina's tribal administrator.

 

Millie Holly: Our people have fought and fought and fought, our parents and our grandparents have fought and fought. And discuss and discuss and held meetings over time and again.

 

Emily Schwing: Millie's face is straight, her mood is dark, she seems exhausted. For decades, she's been fighting to make relocation happen.

 

Millie Holly: Day in and day out, with the federal governments, with local governments, with the state. And tell them, hey we need help here, you guys caused us to live here by calling our people just attend school here.

 

Emily Schwing: In the early 2000s, she thought maybe Kivalina was getting close to finding a way off the island. The whole village worked for at least a decade to agree on a new location. They finally came to a consensus on where they wanted to move. But a 2006 report from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers called the site infeasible.

 

Millie Holly: You should have seen and heard Kivalina back then when they got that document. It was like we had a funeral for at least seven years. We grieved, there was no hope, there was no more fight. It was dismal.

 

Emily Schwing: The Army Corp report describes the village's site as geo-technically inappropriate and strategically problematic. In other words, the ground was unstable, mostly gravel. And on top of that, climate change threatened to erode the land there too. But the report says the do nothing approach wouldn't work either. And says the village definitely needed to move and more than a decade ago, that cost was estimated at $275 million. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska says what's never been clear, is where all that money might come from.

 

Lisa Murkowski: So a plan may be identified, the practical fiscal reality of how we implement that plan becomes a much greater challenge.

 

Emily Schwing: The money to move Kivalina could be pulled from a tangle of state and federal agencies. Likely more than a dozen. I've interviewed people from those agencies for this story but I didn't get any clear answers about how Kivalina's relocation might happen. One agency, FEMA, even has emergency management in its title. But because of the way Congress allocates disaster response money, the agency doesn't seem fully equipped to respond to a slow moving disaster caused by thinning ice and sea level rise. In the age of climate change, Senator Murkowski says things need to be streamlined.

 

Lisa Murkowski: In my view, there is not one agency that is in charge. That makes this an even larger problem when it's not coordinated.

 

Emily Schwing: The residents of Kivalina could become some of America's first climate change refugees. But they won't be the last. If the U.S. government can't help keep these 400 people about water, how will it respond as the climate crisis grows? What about when rising seas threaten much larger cities, like Miami, Charleston and New York?

 

Emily Schwing: I just wanted to ask you if you think the federal government is ready and prepared if something were to happen today to deal with so-called climate change refugees?

 

Lisa Murkowski: I would say no. The direct answer is, we are not as a government prepared. I think most people would say no.

 

Emily Schwing: Late in the afternoon as the wind picks up and the snow begins to blow around, I find myself way up on a giant hill on the mainland across the lagoon from Kivalina. Millie Holly and I drove about seven miles to get here.

 

Emily Schwing: What do you think from up here?

 

Millie Holly: Windy.

 

Emily Schwing: It is windy.

 

Emily Schwing: We came out here on a brand new evacuation road. After years of fighting, the village is finally getting one. It's still under construction but it could help solve another problem when it's complete. The road leads to the site of a new school, right where we're standing. Millie says it could be open by 2021.

 

Millie Holly: A whole new place to think about home.

 

Emily Schwing: One day Millie wants to see the entire village move up here, where it's safe from the sea. But not everyone likes this location and there's still no funding to make that happen. In a lot of ways relocating Kivalina is still just a dream. But Millie's feeling hopeful for the first time in a long while.

 

Millie Holly: It's awesome. Yay.

 

Emily Schwing: You seem so excited.

 

Millie Holly: I am. I'm happy. Oh my goodness.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to reporter Emily Schwing for that story. Our lead producer for this week's show is Katherine Mieszkowski, Brett Myers edited today's show. Thanks to Peter Thompson and Andrea Crossan at the public radio show, The World, for working with us on the story from Antarctica. And the international Thwaites Glacier collaboration and everybody aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer research vessel. Thanks also to KUNC public radio in Greeley, Colorado for partnering on the story about those military radars of the Arctic. Our production managers and Najib Aminy and Mwende Hinojosa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Fernando, my man yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Kaitlin Benz. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado Lightning.

 

Al Letson: Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 34: From PRX.