The Modelling Kivalina Project

I. Interviews

The Modelling Kivalina project hopes to locate and make visible a variety of political perspectives on the erosion of Kivalina’s shoreline, and to place future discussions about the village’s relocation within the broader context of issues contributing to climate displacement around the globe.

At the end of June, from our base in London, we built a model of the village of Kivalina. We decided to concentrate our work on four elements: 1) the surface of the island and village infrastructure, 2) the ocean and lagoon, 3) the geological substrata, and 4) the shoreline in its past, present and projected future conditions. The model was designed so that it could be continuously taken apart, reassembled and modified, in order to adapt to the conversations taking place around it.

With some effort (and excess baggage) our team made its way to Anchorage carrying the model. In Anchorage, we conducted interviews with over a dozen agency representatives and policymakers who have been involved in relocation efforts or are responsible for protecting the village’s current infrastructure.  Each time we carried the model into the office and placed it on a conference table. We began the interview by asking each person to place him or herself on the model. We posed questions about the history of Kivalina’s shoreline with an emphasis on erosion, storms of the past, and construction of the rock revetment wall. The shoreline became the entry point through which we tried to understand how each agency relates itself to the future of the island.

We then travelled to Kivalina and set up our base at the community center with the rest of the Re-Locate group. We started meeting the residents, introducing ourselves and our work.

We asked the same set of questions about the shoreline and the past, present, and future conditions of the island in relation to its ongoing erosion. We soon realized that the model was far from being a complete representation of Kivalina, and started to make additional parts and objects with any available material. The model took on a much larger scale, becoming a stage. As the conversations took place, and accounts of past events unfolded, we moved through it to add and subtract objects and scribble information on and around it, all in real-time according to each person’s storiesl. Every interview left the model in a different configuration, which we documented through film, audio recording, and photography.

As we familiarized ourselves with local life, our interviews became more and more compelling. Joe Swan Sr., a respected Kivalina elder, spoke with us for over two hours, recounting stories about the village, the history of erosion and land ownership, and the changing patterns of subsistence life.

II. Maps

Throughout our stay in Alaska we compiled an audio archive of almost forty interviews. What could we do with them? We needed to take the next step and find a way to turn their temporary display on the model into something more permanent. How could this information become a visual tool that would play a role in the discussions between the village and governmental actors?

Each of the interviews presents a different vision of Kivalina’s changing shoreline, of its shifting layers and boundaries, of the way space is understood by different actors, and of the different uses of language to describe it. Some of the agency representatives and planners we met in Anchorage talked about challenges with cost-benefit analysis, funding allocation and state and federal emergency aid. Residents brought up a much more complex vision of the space, a surface continuously rewritten by both the practices of subsistence and governmental action.


Nearly everyone who looked at the model pointed at something that had been erased, or buried, or forgotten, such as the old graves near the present water tanks. Colleen Swan told us that she “would like to see evidence of [historic sites] on the map… That’s my big issue right now. Trying to go back, trace those things.”

What we collected were not just interviews, but different visions of the same space. Our next move was to draw a base map of the Kivalina region to display its geographical features. Using tracing paper, we started drawing a different map of each interview. We only marked the places and structures that people explicitly mentioned. We also traced the lexicon of words used in the conversation, writing down the terms and institutions mentioned more frequently around the edges of each map.

III. Shorelines

We concentrated our study of the island on the shoreline, the ever-changing borderline where land and sea meet. Mapping the coastline was then an important part of our fieldwork—and it could be done both from the point of view of the island, looking out, and from the sea, looking inland.

One of the most obviously striking aspects of life in Kivalina is the sun, which in early July never sets. Every night from 23:55 to 00:05, as it was still very bright, we went out by the rock revetment and filmed the shoreline. One afternoon, we took a boat ride around the island to film the length of Kivalina’s coast from the sea. Adding this additional perspective, our video footage documented different ways of viewing the shoreline.  The resulting film, together with the scale model and the maps, are the forms of media we are using to contribute to the discussion.

Our project does not only aim to model Kivalina—it proposes to think of Kivalina as a model for the increasing number of communities that will face hardship and risk because of climate change. Global warming is already drawing a new geography of frontier regions from the Arctic to the Sahel. These zones of shifting climate lines, once remote from the centers of Western society, are now brought in the spotlight, as some of the places already experiencing the effects of unprecedented global change.

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One Response to “The Modelling Kivalina Project”

  1. We are writing play about Kivalina and visited the island in July, 2012. A major theme of the play is about the increasing storms, the erosion and the changing shoreline. We are fascinated by the project you have described and we would like very much to be in dialogue with you and exchange information. Please let us know if you are open to this.
    Sharmon Hilfinger
    Joan McMillen

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