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Climate Change Is Intensifying the Tsunami Threat in Alaska

Climate Change Is Intensifying the Tsunami Threat in Alaska

As glaciers retreat and permafrost thaws, massive landslides threaten coastal communities. Those, in turn, could trigger giant sea waves.

Tucked against glacier-capped mountains, the Begich Towers loom over Whittier, Alaska. More than 80 percent of the small town’s residents live in the Cold War-era barracks in this former secret military port, whose harbor teems every summer with traffic: barnacle-encrusted fishing boats, sightseeing ships, sailboats, superyachts and cruiseliner monstrosities. This summer, coronavirus travel restrictions put a damper on tourism in the usually buzzing port. Then came warnings of a potentially devastating tsunami.

Whittier residents have been mindful of tsunamis for generations. In 1964, the Good Friday earthquake was followed by a 25-foot wave that crushed waterfront infrastructure, lifting and twisting rail lines and dragging them back to sea. The Good Friday earthquake—which killed 13 people here and caused $10 million worth of damage—still occupies Whittier’s memory.

With tons of rock and rubble precariously perched high above a nearby fjord, ready to crash into the sea, the town’s present is being shaped by both its past and preparations for an uncertain future. This destabilization is being driven by climate change: Tsunamis are becoming more likely in Alaska as hillsides, formerly reinforced by glaciers and solidly frozen ground, loosen their hold on once-stable slopes.
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