Observation by Johnee Seetot:
The mass burial site is adjacent to the graveyard to the east, about 75-100 feet away. Here, one of the crosses has fallen down. When they get separated from the gravesite it's a big problem. The graveyard (to the north) has fallen crosses, and you can see that the edge of the area atop the creek side is showing signs of erosion.
Comments from LEO Editors:
This year has been the second-warmest and second-wettest on record (Nome weather station). These conditions are accelerating permafrost thaw in some areas and resulting in land subsidence and erosion (see Johnee Seetot's photos).
Mike Brubaker from the Center for Climate and Health writes:
This site has an important history, which is worth revisiting. Brevig Mission is located within the traditional lands of the Kauwerak Inupiat people. In 1892, a reindeer station opened in the nearby village of Teller. Brevig was named for a Lutheran minister, Reverend Tollef L. Brevig, who worked at the reindeer station and started the Mission in Brevig. In November of 1918, the Spanish flu arrived, carried by infected people (person?) traveling by dog sled from Nome. Within days, the disease had claimed the lives of 72 of the 80 inhabitants. The dead were buried on a hill marked by two small white crosses. This is the same site described by Johnee in his observation. The devastation from the H1N1 Spanish Flu is a tragic footnote in the history of Brevig Mission. But Brevig Mission recovered and later played a critical role in helping to prevent this virus in the future.
*The Virus Hunter* - In 1951, Johan Hultin, a microbiology student from the University of Iowa, came to Brevig Mission with a party of scientists. Their mission was to try and recover a sample of a person who had died in the epidemic and for the first time, identify the strain of virus. Hultin had heard from a colleague that the only way to get a viable sample would be if it was collected from a victim frozen in permafrost. He traveled to several villages in the Norton Sound region including Shismaref, Teller, and Wales looking for burial sites from the 1918 epidemic (J. Hultin personal communication). In Brevig, the mass grave was located on the edge of the village marked by two small crosses. Village elders granted Hultin permission to excavate and collect samples. For days he and his team gathered firewood on the beach and tended fires day and night to thaw and chip through the ground. After a week some of the victims were unearthed and Hultin and his team were able to collect samples. He was unable, however, to recover viable genetic material in the lab because of problems with thawing during transport and how quickly the samples deteriorated. Fourty-six years later he teamed with Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger to try again (see CDC article attached). They returned in 1997 and again Hultin received permission to dig. This time his team was successful and they published their results in 1999 in the paper, [Origin and evolution of the 1918 "Spanish" Influenza virus hemagglutinin gene](https://www.pnas.org/content/96/4/1651). During the 1997 trip, Hultin saw that the small crosses that previously covered the site were missing, so he built the two large crosses (shown above) at the school woodshop. Through the effort of Brevig Mission and Dr. Hultin, critical understanding of this virus was obtained to help in developing vaccines.
*Permafrost thaw and infectious disease* - With the advent of climate change and rapid thawing of permafrost across the Arctic, many communities are facing impacts to infrastructure and in some cases, relocation. Historical areas including burial sites are being lost and many are in need of relocation. Brevig Mission falls into this category, as does nearby Teller, Wales, and St. Michael. Guidance and resources on how to relocate human remains in a culturally sensitive way is a priority. Also, make sure this is done safely to reduce the risk of injury and emotional trauma from experiencing the unearthing of ancestors, and to prevent any risk of infectious disease.
Guidance from the State of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (attached) points out that risk of infection from human remains is low, but that precautions (such as wearing gloves and glasses) is advisable in certain cases. These include when remains are: "recovered from a sealed coffin, have been constantly frozen or in very cold environments, or are known to have died from smallpox, anthrax or tetanus." As stated in the fact sheet, influenza virus has never before been recovered from frozen remains, so there is no known evidence of significant risk.
In Brevig, there are no exposed remains from the mass burial site, but it is beginning to erode and subside. In the event that remains are exposed, taking precautions is advised, based on the history and the fact that the remains are in thawing permafrost. The site should be monitored. If remains are exposed:
1) Use barrier precautions; 2) wear latex or vinyl gloves to protect your hands when handling human remains or caskets; 3) wear protective eyewear; 4) cover regular clothing that is disposable or can be washed with bleach; 5) use disposable dust masks in enclosed environments or where there may be a lot of dust in the air; 6) wash hands immediately after gloves are removed. If running water and soap aren’t available, use a waterless hand wash product with 70% alcohol; 7) avoid eating and drinking or smoking at the work area; 8) cover (protect) any open skin lesions that workers may have; 9) place any human remains found outside of caskets or from damaged and opened caskets in body bags.
Vladimir Romanovsky with the Permafrost Laboratory at University of Alaska Fairbanks writes:
Management of the site can help to prevent further thawing and subsidence. Additional caretaking efforts may be required to restore markers and maintain proper cover. As the ground settles, ponding may occur and further develop troughs in the area where there are still flat surfaces. So the sinking areas may soon extend into the flat areas. The growing shrubs will aggrevate the situation and lead to collection of more snow, which makes the permafrost more susepible to thaw. To keep the area from thawing further, you can fill it with some fine silt material (not sand or gravel) and then add a layer of organic material like peat (turf) on top. Trimming shrubs will keep snow off or prevent snow drift accumulation. Removing as much of the snow as possible during winter will allow complete freezing and for freezing to occur sooner in the winter, which will allow cold temperatures to get into the permafrost and make it more stable. Decreased temperature of the permafrost will also help to prevent deep summer thaw of the ground from occurring.