A climate-threatened Alaska village gets an expanded medical clinic — that can move when the village relocates

When Kivalina is ready to relocate to higher ground, the new clinic will be portable enough to make the move, too.

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Kivalina, built on a spit in the Chukchi Sea, is one of the Alaska villages most threatened by erosion due to climate change, but has struggled to find the resources to relocate to higher ground. (Relocate Kivalina)

A rapidly eroding Arctic Alaska village is expanding its medical clinic — and also ensuring that the structure will be portable enough to move to a new site, should the village follow through with plans to relocate to safer ground.

In Kivalina, the Maniilaq Association — a nonprofit corporation representing the Inupiat of northwestern Alaska — is reconfiguring and expanding its health clinic in a way that will allow the entire facility to be transported to another site.

The original structure was fashioned out of five steel shipping containers that were welded together, Tom Bolen, Maniilaq’s capital projects manager, said in an email. The expansion will attach a module containing a trauma room, exam room and a dental clinic. A new garage will be added as well, Bolen said

The project is expected to cost nearly $1 million, and it just got a boost from the Anchorage-based Rasmuson Foundation. The foundation is awarding Maniilaq $150,000 for the project, part of $11.4 million in statewide grants announced on July 6.

The dental clinic, a first for Kivalina, is considered particularly important for children who have been suffering from tooth decay but have not had access to care.

“This is huge for the kids and the community,” Augustas Kirkland, Maniilaq’s dental program manager, said in a Rasmuson Foundation statement. “This expansion is key to the success of what we do in this village.”

Kivalina is located on a stretch of Chukchi Sea shoreline that is threatened by both sea-ice retreat and permafrost thaw. Lack of ice has exposed the village to more waves and storm surges, and thaw has allowed the shoreline to be eaten away more quickly.

Kivalina is one of four Alaska villages considered to be at greatest risk and in most need of a new site. But so far, Kivalina has not secured funding for a move or settled on a precise site for a relocated village.

The tenuous nature of Kivalina’s current location has made it difficult for the village to attract investment in facilities that might wind up being temporary.

Relocation needs have complicated Kivalina’s plans to build a new school. The legislature in 2015 appropriated more than $43 million for a new school, and last year lawmakers added in another $7 million. The school funding was a follow-up to a class-action lawsuit about rural education that was settled in 2011.

The new school is planned for a site on high ground outside of the existing village, with an access road intended to double up as an emergency route inland in the event of storm surges and flooding. Design of the school and the access road has been a key part of Kivalina’s relocation planning. This year, the legislature passed a bill, HB 135, that gives extra time to Kivalina to find a school and road site and start construction. The bill allows school districts facing extraordinary circumstances to take up to seven extra years for school construction without losing state funding.