Relocating Alaska Natives: The Climate is Changing Faster Than Disaster Management and Adaptation Policies

Relocating Alaska Natives: The Climate is Changing Faster Than Disaster Management and Adaptation Policies

By Christine Shearer

In 2008, I took a tiny cargo plane to the Inupiaq village of Kivalina, in the northwest of Alaska above the Arctic Circle. I had heard the village would be lost to climate change from erosion, which I imagined to be a slow, gradual, and predictable process.

Touring the island and speaking to residents and government workers, I soon realized the erosion is actually often sudden, severe, and erratic, brought on by increasingly strong storms that threaten the peoples’ safety. Kivalina needs to be relocated. The problem is there is no policy or structure in place to relocate them.

While the continental U.S. shifts between weather extremes – from strong storms fueled by increased precipitation to prolonged droughts aggravated by heat – the changes in the Arctic have been much less ambiguous: steady warming.

Annual mean temperatures in the Arctic region are rising twice as fast as the global average. The warming is melting glaciers, allowing for the absorption of more heat, with recent studies suggesting the possibility of a completely ice-free summer by 2040 or even 2030. Entire ecosystems are transforming, as rising seas pour into freshwater systems, making deltas and lakes more saline and inhospitable for some species, while attracting whole new species.

These changes are also affecting the people of the Arctic, particularly indigenous communities that depend on the land for their daily needs. That land is changing around them, making traveling on ice more dangerous and the migrations of mammals and fish less predictable. The traditional knowledge that has sustained them for millennia is becoming more and more at odds with the transforming landscape.

Some communities are facing the eventual loss of their entire homeland. This includes Kivalina, an Alaska Native village of about 427 people perched on a thin strip of land between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina Lagoon.

Residents trace their ancestry to the area back thousands of years, to some of the first migrations into the Americas. The people originally used Kivalina as a seasonal hunting ground but, beginning in 1905, parents were ordered by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to settle there and enroll their kids in school. In exchange, the people of Kivalina received some small-scale infrastructure, a school, and a medical clinic, and they began making a home for themselves.

Part of this new settlement depended on the formation of sea ice in early fall, hardening the island and buffering it against storms. With warming Arctic temperatures, that ice now forms as late as November or even December, leaving the shoreline exposed and vulnerable for longer periods of time. Lack of ice means the storms are growing stronger as well, as winds are traveling over the open sea for longer periods, building up more energy that is transferred to the water, creating larger waves when they hit the shore.

In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 2003 report stating the village needed to be relocated immediately due to storm erosion from climate change, a finding backed by a 2006 Army Corps of Engineers report, which stated that Kivalina would be lost to erosion in 10 to 15 years.

The need to relocate was not news to Kivalina, who had voted to relocate in 1992. The problem? There is no formal relocation policy in place in the U.S., and no government agency tasked with relocation.

Policies around disaster management are primarily structured around helping people strengthen their existing settlements, not move to new ones. Most disaster assistance and funds are available only after a disaster occurs and a disaster declaration is made. This would be too late for a village requiring relocation from steady and sometimes rapid erosion. Disaster mitigation policies, meanwhile, are limited and primarily geared toward strengthening a community within its current area.

Kivalina, however, does not have the option of safely remaining where they are. In 2004, a storm took away a chunk of shoreline, leaving some residents with the sea suddenly at their doorstep. That storm was followed by a series of other storms, swallowing as much as seventy feet of land in one downpour, and forcing the people to build makeshift seawalls out of whatever materials were available. They have had seawalls fail on them, and had to engage in a dangerous evacuation via all-terrain vehicles – dangerous, because there are few places for the people to actually go.

In the meantime, government workers have been doing what they can within their prescribed boundaries. This includes, for example, a more formal rock revetment initiated by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2007 to help protect the southern end of the island from destabilizing.

Relocation remains necessary, however, but no agency is authorized to move Kivalina or other Alaska Native villages requiring relocation. This means that piecing together the relocation of the entire community has fallen largely on the people of Kivalina, and has advanced little since they put relocation to a vote nearly two decades ago.

The need for a relocation policy was laid out in a 2009 GAO report, aptly titled, “Alaska Native villages: Limited progress has been made on relocating villages threatened by flooding and erosion.”

In 2008, the native village sued fossil fuel companies for federal public nuisance and their relocation costs. The claim? Kivalina has an identifiable harm, traceable to greenhouse gas emissions, of which the defendant companies are amongst the world’s largest contributors, with a smaller subset like ExxonMobil having actively tried to downplay the severity of climate change and the need for regulations, including both mitigation and adaptation policies. In 2009, a Northern California court dismissed the claim. It is being appealed.

In the meantime, the situation of Kivalina shows it is time to adapt our policies to changing times. The stable climate that federal and state disaster management was built upon is transforming, and nowhere more quickly than in the Arctic. Government workers need to have the flexibility and authority to better assist people requiring relocation. A formal relocation policy and responsible government agency should be put into place. And the people of the Arctic need to be empowered to protect themselves.

Christine Shearer is a postdoctoral scholar in science, technology, and society studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch. Her work has appeared in Conservation Letters, the Huffington Post, and Truthout, and she is author of Kivalina: A Climate Change Story (Haymarket Books, 2011).

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