On the final day of my trip to Alaska, I understand that I became the first president to travel above the Arctic Circle.
I’m proud and happy I got to do it – because some pretty extraordinary people live up there.
I visited Dillingham – a small, vibrant coastal city that sits on Nushagak Bay, at the heart of the Bristol Bay salmon-fishing district. I had the opportunity to stand on a beach and watch subsistence fisherman pull their catches up out of the water. If you’ve eaten wild salmon, there’s a good chance it came from here — and having sampled some pretty outstanding salmon jerky, I can attest that it’s delicious.
It was fascinating to see fishing skill that has been built up over hundreds of years at work — and a reminder that the beautiful waters of this region have come to house a massive economic engine. The region provides 40 percent of America’s wild-caught seafood, and helps support a $2 billion commercial fishing industry whose jobs extend beyond Alaska’s borders. That’s why we took action last December to shut off oil and gas exploration in this area indefinitely — and why I’ll continue to support efforts to protect this community as long as I’m President.
I was proud to take action last year to protect Bristol Bay and honored to meet folks today who depend on it. And don’t miss the salmon jerky if you come visit.
At Dillingham Middle School, I got to watch (and dance with) a group of young people performing a traditional Yup’ik dance — a cultural tradition which spans millennia. And I rode with Robin, a lifelong Dillingham resident, who described to me how the frozen tundra of his youth has transformed into scrub forest in just a few decades as a result of a warming climate.
From there, it was on to Kotzebue — a town of about 3,000 26 miles above the Arctic Circle. The town’s main roadways, the community’s blood line, runs right above the Kotzebue Sound, making it very vulnerable to coastal erosion and the intense arctic storms that can raise the water levels much higher than normal high tides. After speaking to folks at the local high school, I got a chance to take a look at the Kotzebue Shore Avenue Project — made of thousands of feet of roadway, sheet pile, and armor stone — which has protected the roadway and was paid for, in part, with federal transportation funds. It’s a reminder of exactly why we fight so hard for infrastructure spending. It’s for communities like these.
From there it was back to Anchorage, and we’ll be departing for the mainland in the next few hours.
It’s hard to believe this trip is already coming to a close. Over the course of the past three days, from the decks of Coast Guard cutters and the edges of ice fields, I’ve had the opportunity to see some wild and beautiful things in Alaska — and I’ve enjoyed sharing them with the rest of the country.
But a very serious reality lies within those breathtaking sights: And that’s the fact that this state’s climate is changing before our eyes.
A couple of days ago, I stood on rock where, just ten years ago, there was a glacier. Yesterday, I flew over Kivalina Island, an Arctic town that’s already losing land to the sea from erosion and further threatened by sea-level rise. I’ve seen shores that have been left battered by storm surges that used to be contained by ice. And now, that ice is gone.
This is Kivalina Island, an Arctic town that’s already receding into the ocean because of rising sea levels. For many Alaskans, it’s no longer a question of if they have to relocate – but when. There aren’t many other places in America that have to deal with questions of relocation right now. But there will be. What’s happening here is America’s wake-up call.
When it comes to climate change, I believe there’s such a thing as being too late. And that moment is almost here.
The Alaskans I met with these past three days know that better than anybody.
And so as I close out this travelogue, it’s my hope that decades and decades from now, when this generation has long since left the planet, we will have acted decisively. We will have left those generations with a planet they can continue to thrive on.
We will have lived up to our own words — that our best days are still ahead.
President Barack Obama / IM