||Climate Change: Realities of Relocation for Alaska Native Villages
As temperatures across the Arctic rise at twice the global average, the impacts of climate change in Alaska
are already being felt (IPCC 2007). Warming temperatures exacerbate problems of permafrost erosion, flooding,
and melting ice barriers, making an already unpredictable environment even more volatile (GAO 2004). Alaska
Natives are among the most impacted in this region, and, according to the Government Accountability Office
(2004), flooding and erosion affects 86% of Alaska Native villages to some extent.
As a consequence of the changing living conditions, Alaska Native communities are being forced to relocate
their homes in what is called the first wave of U.S. climate refugees (Sakakibara 2010), reflecting the
war-like effects of climate change. However, relocating is a culturally damaging, expensive, and politically
complex process that only a few villages have begun. While a small number of Alaska Native communities are
considering relocation, the situation continues to worsen: in a 2004 report, the GAO reported that flooding
and erosion imminently threatened four villages. By 2009, that number had risen to thirty-one villages.
Extreme weather in Alaska is not a new phenomenon, and Alaska Natives are accustomed to adapting to its
effects. Traditionally, many communities would adapt to the seasonal variability by migrating between hunting
grounds throughout the year. However, beginning around the turn of the 20th century, Alaska Natives were
forced to settle by the U.S. government, creating a dependence on the immediate area and subsequent
vulnerability to events like erosion and flooding (MOVE 2010). Climate change creates more extreme seasonal
events, increasing the risk associated with living in one place, including erosion of permafrost foundations
on which many communities are built (GAO 2009, pg 7).
Alaska Native communities are at varying stages in considering relocation, and have very different perspectives
of what relocation will mean. While some individuals may look forward to improved living conditions (New
York Times 2007), others are reluctant to abandon the lands their ancestors lived on for thousands of years
(Powering A Nation 2010). The primary efforts of Alaska Natives, however, are often focused on securing food
and shelter for their families, making planning for long-term changes more challenging.
Considerations for Relocation:
In 2009, the
GAO reported that 12 of 31 communities identified as imminently threatened had decided to relocate. The GAO
reported that these communities were at varying stages in the process, and slowed down by a number of
challenges, including choosing a relocation site, paying for the process, and partnering with government
organizations. Additionally, uprooting and moving to a new land represents breaking from uniquely adapted
traditions that took thousands of years to develop (BBC News).
The situation is complicated further by finding a site that is both culturally acceptable and structurally
sound. Alaska Native communities are located in some of the most remote places in the world, and are often
only accessible by airplane (GAO 2009). As a result, the cost of relocating several hundred people climbs
into the hundreds of millions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated the cost of relocating Kivalina
at $95-125 million, Shishmaref at $100-200 million, and Newtok at $80-130 million. These costs are well
beyond what is realistic for subsistence communities, so most turn to government agencies for funding
support. Unfortunately, there are a myriad of political, cultural and economic factors that complicate
obtaining government funding for relocation. For example, the USACE has to justify its projects by
performing a cost evaluation that shows that expected benefits outweigh the cost (GAO 2004). However,
estimating the cost of preserving some of the oldest cultures in the world is very complex.
Another complication arises from Alaska’s political jurisdictions: "Because of Alaska’s unique
structure of organized boroughs and an unorganized borough, unincorporated Native villages in the
unorganized borough do not qualify for federal housing funds from HUD’s (U.S. Department of Housing and
Urban Development) Community Development Block Grant program. The disqualification of the villages in
this borough is not because they lack the need for these funds, but because there is no local government
that is a political subdivision of the state to receive the funds" (GAO 2009). Even funding specifically
aimed to address these types of situations is sometimes unavailable to communities: "The Federal
Emergency Management Agency has several disaster preparedness and recovery programs, but villages often
fail to qualify for them, generally because they may lack approved disaster mitigation plans or have not
been declared federal disaster area" (GAO 2009).
Owing to the economic and technical dynamics of relocation, communities are reaching out to government
organizations for assistance. The State of Alaska is addressing the need for such assistance and in 2007
created the Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, which has participated in the preparation and implementation
of a climate change strategy for Alaska. Information made available on the State of Alaska climate
change website (www.climatechange.alaska.gov/)
addresses adaptation, mitigation, immediate actions and research needs. At the Federal level, the U.S.
Army Corps of Engineers has been working closely with communities to help develop strategies and
provide technical support for relocation. However, the lack of a lead federal entity to coordinate
and help prioritize assistance to relocating villages creates many problems with miscommunication
and undirected efforts (GAO 2009).
Alaska Native Villages Engaged in Relocation Efforts:
A 2004 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified 31 Alaska Native Villages
as &imminently threatened."
In 2009, the GAO listed 12 communities that had begun exploring relocation options: Kivalina, Newtok,
Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, Allakaket, Golovin, Hughes, Huslia, Koyukuk, Nulato, Teller, and Unalakleet
(GAO 2009). Following are highlights from efforts by three of these villages to explore relocation,
as well as links to more in-depth resources and case studies about these communities.
Located on an island in the northwest corner of Alaska, the village of Kivalina is quickly losing
the ice that governs life for its 400 residents. The ice provides a natural barrier against harsh
sea storms, serves as the community’s hunting ground for seals, and gives the village its drinking
water. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated relocation costs to be $95 - $125 million (ACE 2006).
Kivalina experienced further struggles in identifying a relocation site. "The Community has
identified a site it wishes to move to, but that the USACE does not believe is an adequate site,
e.g. it is underlain with permafrost which would require many feet of fill material to provide a
good foundation for buildings" (IAW 2009).
According to Mille Hawley, President of the Kivalina IRA Council, the community has shifted its
focus from relocation to evacuation. The community decided on the change because evacuation is
something that state and federal agencies can support more easily than relocation, and a strong
evacuation plan will keep people safe. To accomplish this, the village of Kivalina is currently
utilizing Bureau of Indian Affairs funds for roads to develop a plan to build a bridge from the
island to the mainland. The village hopes to access additional funding and foster partnerships
with entities including the Denali Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard
to develop a comprehensive evacuation plan. Hawley suggested that focusing on individual activities,
such as development of an evacuation plan, may be more likely to result in incremental changes that
will help keep the people of Kivalina safe. More information on relocation efforts in Kivalina
can be found at www.kivalinacity.com/
Inhabited for over 4,000 years, the town of Shishmaref is located on a barrier island in the
Chukchi Sea off the western coast of Alaska. Shishmaref depends on the ice surrounding the
island for protection, food, and water. In recent decades, Shishmaref has lost 40% of the ice
that protects it from storm surges reaching the island, and already more than 10 homes have had
to be evacuated (Spanner Films 2001). Shishmaref began exploring relocation in 2001, and in 2002
formed the Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition comprised of the governing members of the
city, Indian Reorganization Council, and the Shishmaref Native Corporation Board of Directors.
The Army Corps of Engineers estimated relocation costs to be $100 - $200 million (ACE 2006). More
information on Shishmaref can be found at: www.shishmarefrelocation.com
Located on the western coast of Alaska, Newtok is home to 320 Alaska Natives. The sea and the
river that cuts through Newtok are eroding the permafrost on which the town is built. A 1983
assessment of erosion problems found that within 25 to 30 years, the erosion would begin to
endanger the community. Since then, Newtok has worked on relocation efforts, and in 1994 started
the relocation planning process. By 1996, the town had selected Mertaryik, which in Yup'ik
means "getting water from the spring," as the relocation site. The Army Corps of Engineers
estimated relocation costs to be $80 to $130 million (ACE 2006). In 2006, the Newtok community,
government agencies, and non-governmental organizations formed the Newtok Planning Group,
which was described in the 2009 IAWG Report as "a model for local community, state and
federal partnerships to address complex issues." More information on Newtok relocation
efforts can be found at
Research Efforts on Relocation in Alaska:
Moved by the State: Perspectives on Relocation and Resettlement in the Circumpolar North (MOVE) is a
project of the European Science Foundation and funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council, the US National Science Foundation, the Academy of Finland, and the Danish Research
Agency. It is a research initiative comprised of five participating projects based in Canada (University
of Alberta), Finland (University of Lapland), Denmark (University of Greenland), and the United States
(University of Alaska Fairbanks & University of Maryland). Over a four-year project lifespan,
field research involving teams of researchers and local collaborators will be conducted in Alaska,
northern Canada, Greenland and regions of the Russian far North (Chukotka, Magadan, Yamal). MOVE has
conducted research to date in Kivalina in partnership with faculty at the University of Alaska in
Fairbanks, and is currently performing fieldwork in Shishmaref and Koyukuk (MOVE 2010).
References and Resources:
The references below include those cited in the profile and others with further information on
issues related to relocation among Alaska Native communities.
State and Community Websites:
Tribal Climate Change Profile Project:
The University of Oregon and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station are developing
tribal climate change project profiles as a pathway to increasing knowledge among tribal and non-tribal
organizations interested in learning about climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. Each profile
is intended to illustrate innovative approaches to addressing climate change challenges and will describe
the successes and lessons learned associated with planning and implementation. For more information about
the initiative, visit: