New Report Sheds More Light On Climate Change Impacts To Alaska Native Villages

Napakiak had to move its fuel tanks this past summer to keep them from falling into the encroaching Kuskokwim River.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

Ten years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers released a report that detailed the impacts of erosion in Alaska Native communities.

Don Antrobus is the Program Manager for the Village Infrastructure Protection Program at the Denali Commission, and helped guide an updated report that documents erosion and other environmental threats facing the communities: erosion, thawing permafrost, and flooding. Antrobus says that all are made worse by climate change. 


"In order for communities to develop good solutions, they need to fully understand the site-specific threat," Antrobus said.

Several reports have documented these environmental threats in Alaska. Back in 2003, the U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report that identified nine Alaska Native villages under dire threat from erosion. In 2009, the Army Corps of Engineers did another report that listed more villages that needed immediate attention because of erosion. A few additional reports focused on thawing permafrost, but this most recent report takes a look at all three. Antrobus says that more specific information is needed to fully understand the threats.

The Army Corps of Engineers and researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks conducted the research and wrote up the report at the behest of the Denali Commission. It took three years and $700,000.

"So one of the approaches that we're taking to try to kind of paint a bullseye around what those additional data collection needs are is to not only say that you need additional information, but to identify these are the specific types of communities, specific vulnerability analyses that are necessary," Antrobus said.

This report examines 187 communities, most of them in Western Alaska near or right on the coast or near a river, and ranks them according to how bad the threat is endangering their infrastructure. The rankings are complex. The report separates the three threats, and ranks each community under them. For instance, erosion is a category. Then the report combines all three, and ranks the communities that are in the biggest trouble. The names near the top of the list face the most threats.

"There is a little bit of uncertainty based on that availability of data, so it shouldn't be taken as hard and fast," Antrobus said.

Still, the top two names are not a surprise: Shaktoolik and Shishmaref, both close to the Bering and Chuchki Seas. 

"We were looking at flooding, erosion, and permafrost degradation, threats to community infrastructure. And so I think it's natural that a lot of the, you know, the flooding threats, the greatest flooding threats that we're gonna see are gonna be along the coast," Antrobus said.

These villages have endured catastrophic erosion and storms, and the dwindling sea ice means that there is less protection for the shoreline. The ocean is nibbling closer to communities, forcing some, like Shishmaref, to consider relocation. Other communities sit right next to a riverbank, like Napakiak and Newtok in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Newtok is relocating entirely, while Napakiak wants to move its school.

Antrobus says that the report could help communities figure out their biggest threat. For some, erosion is the biggest. For others, it’s flooding.

Antrobus says that this report is just a one-time effort, but he hopes government agencies and villages can fill in the gaps in data, and apply for funding to do so.