• Blake Gentry

II. Native Peoples and Permafrost in Alaska

Updated: Apr 9

This 2nd blog in the Series, Climate Adaptation and Indigenous Response in the Arctic, explores the human impacts of permafrost melt and it considers in situ versus ex-situ climate adaptation in a brief community case study.

Blake Gentry


There are 229 federally recognized Alaskan Native tribes, including Inuit, mostly organized into indigenous villages. As a result of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations, 12 for natives who were residents at the time of incorporation, and one for individuals who left prior to incorporation. All indigenous villages were historically established on a land base but then forfeited their land rights in1971to native regional and local corporations under the Native Claims and Settlement Act (NACSA) [1] . Native corporations gained legal surface rights as a legal entities to represent their shareholders’ economic interests. Under corporate status individuals became members of an Alaskan Native Corporation through a process of shares being assigned and distributed to them, though not all Native Alaskan Corporations continued to issue shares for children born after 1971. This act of congress was not subject to approval by Alaskan native communities.

Alaskan native corporations then act on behalf of shareholders whose sub-surface mineral and fossil fuel rights can only be acted on by the corporation on behalf of individual shareholders. Initial enrolment in Alaska Native regional corporations, completed from 1971-1973, recorded 64,000 Alaska Native shareholders, having grown to 138,000 by 2018. Besides paying shareholders annual dividends, they generate economic activity through construction, environmental services, government contracting, natural resource development, technology services, and real estate. In FY 2017 they employed 15,000 people with a payroll of $950 million, generating $9.1 billion in revenue. [2]Indigenous communities in central Alaska are identified as under threat from the most accelerated permafrost decline over time.

Image Source: Pastick, Neal J., M. Torre Jorgenson, Bruce K. Wylie, Shawn J. Nield, Kristofer D. Johnson, and Andrew O. Finley. "Distribution of near-surface permafrost in Alaska: Estimates of present and future conditions." Remote Sensing of Environment 168 (2015): 301-315.

Current permafrost mapped in the adjacent image (USGS:2015) is at near-surface permafrost at 1 meter; indicted by in deep blue in northern Alaska in the first graph. But in eight more decades, the United States Geographical Survey estimates that permafrost found in “38 percent of boreal and arctic Alaska would be reduced by 16 to 24 percent . . .under widely accepted climate scenarios”. (USGS:2015) [3].

Image Source: Pastick, Neal J., M. Torre Jorgenson, Bruce K. Wylie, Shawn J. Nield, Kristofer D. Johnson, and Andrew O. Finley. "Distribution of near-surface permafrost in Alaska: Estimates of present and future conditions." Remote Sensing of Environment 168 (2015): 301-315.

The adjacent 2nd map shows the estimated projected probability of permafrost loss to levels of less than 1 meter in Alaska. The measurement of permafrost is complex. While this map was based on thousands of field observations (n = 16,786), the mean thickness for Alaska was 58 cm (1.9 ft.), and other methodological controls using remote sensing were incorporated, such as variation in topography, vegetation and land surface characteristics, and climate, plus predictive modelling and mapping which incorporated “28 environmental predictors” . . . into attribute selection analyses”. The blue areas on the northern coast of Alaska demonstrate the highest potential probability of retaining permafrost at 80.01% to 90%. The Central zone shows a range of 30-0% probability of holding on to its permafrost between 30% – 70 %; indicating a vulnerable amount of variability over a large region. Most of the state’s population lives in the south, where permafrost is not present. [4]

It is misleading to only describe future scenarios however, because climate change impacts have already begun to affect indigenous populations. For example, the Utqiagvik community lost 8% of population between 2000 and 2010. As elsewhere, climate is often interpreted to be only part of a series of changes that negatively affect indigenous peoples and their decisions to relocate or migrate. But the future that the Utqiagvik community faces will not be faced alone, as the Adaptation Planning in Alaska map of indigenous communities suggests.[5]

Image Source: Markon, C., S. Gray, M. Berman, L. Eerkes-Medrano, T. Hennessy, H. Huntington, J. Littell, M. McCammon, R. Thoman, and S. Trainor, 2017: Alaska. In Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. May- cock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 1185–1241. doi: 10.7930/NCA4. 2018.CH26

A 2016 study (Hamilton, et al 2016) identified 43 communities vulnerable to climate change impacts and process of some level of adaptation planning from 1990 -2010, but stated there was no evidence of populations being forced to migrate due to climate impacts. However, the authors noted, “Sharp inter-annual swings invite speculation, but general explanations thus far have proven to be elusive.” [6] It is my opinion, that Inter- annual swings are likely a gloss for long standing traditional native response patterns based on traditional environmental knowledge. The long foreground to the current status and location of Alaskan native communities is embedded in traditional seasonal moves related to hunting and fishing; moves once possible but which pre-dated statehood. Such mobility included avoidance of riverine floods due to seasonal melting as Ristorph has noted. Given the long term strictures and socio-political structures imposed on them, such as missions and schools (Ristroph: 2019)[7], they face social impacts and restrictions on land uses resulting from the legacy of Settler Colonialism not unlike other indigenous communities in other environments (Gentry, et al 2019). [8] As climate impacts evolve in Alaska, community responses call upon native knowledge from traditional practices which inform individual, family, and community wide decisions for economic survival and access to needed services. Climate impacts, while “real”, are but one of several challenges Native Alaskans face, and there is no uniformity to that mix across all communities.

This may explain why Hamilton et al’s findings were at odds with reports Bronen (2013) cited that Alaska Native communities have requested to move village infrastructure and, in some cases, village locations. [9] Cyclical moves for employment and temporary relocations are also adaptive measures at scales and in temporalities which do not necessarily rise to the village level, but which indicate adaptation- nevertheless.

Furthermore, Bronen underlines that there is not an “adaptive governance framework in place to evaluate when communities and government agencies need to shift their work from protection in place to community relocation”. The 2013 Brookings LSE project by Bronen discusses a US Government Accounting Office report of 2009 that documented both erosion and flooding which “imminently threatened 31 Alaskan communities”.[10] The research also concluded that the number of Native Alaska villages looking to relocate due to “the immediate threat of climate-induced environmental change” tripled from four in 2003 to twelve 2009. (GAO 2013: 2009, 16). Finally, it stated that physically land based adaptations had failed:

Standard, defensive adaptation strategies to protect coastal communities from erosion, such as rock walls and sandbags, have been largely unsuccessful (Adaptation Advisory Group 2010). While permafrost may open more solid ground for building construction, it also opens roads to previously untapped natural resources, including oil and minerals. (GAO:2013)

For example, at the village of Kivalina located 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the eroding gravel coastline was assessed by the US Army Corps of Engineers to be uninhabitable by 2025.

The GAO report specified that 12 communities were recognized by the US Federal Government as legally recognized tribes. All twelve are located in areas reachable only by small planes year round. It notes that their lives depend directly on subsistence hunting and wild food gathering, and that subsistence harvests are critical to food security, given high costs for food transported by air. It points out that;

“Climate change will impact subsistence harvests by changing the distribution and abundance of wild foods”.

It soberly contemplated that a stay-in-place-strategy for the villages after adaptation which attempted to shore up local infrastructure – failed; posing significant human risk:

“A decrease in use of subsistence foods from climate change-related impacts could lead to health problems including an increase in hunger, malnutrition and disease.” (ANTHC 2011). GAO: 2013.

By fall of 2019, the inaccuracy of a strict in situ vs ex-situ population comparisons as an adaptation research method was made apparent, given that by September 2019, the first Native Alaskan village in modern times began to officially migrate from Newtok (Niugtaq in Central Yup'ik language) located in coastal Western Alaska. Home to the Qaluyaarmiut or “dip net people” community of some 354 people by 2010, whom made a community-wide decision to first relocate one third of its residents to a higher location with bedrock nine miles away. The Traditional Council recognized that as early as 1994 that erosion problems pose serious challenges. Over time the council promoted studies on relocation, a geo-technical report, and a transportation plan. It then took actions in 1996 for a land exchange, and in 2006 authorized the development of a marina at the new site the village would relocate to. Internal issues and difficulty in obtaining funding for implementation in contrast to planning stagnated progress. According to the Newtok Planning Group;

Neither the state nor federal government acknowledge that climate change qualifies for disaster relief funds.[11]

As a result of ground warming, permafrost melt reduces the composition of ice in soil causing embankment erosion as soil loses its active top layer. Seasonal thaw depth is exposed and embankment soils are absorbed by Ningliq riverine wave action especially with fall storms. [12] In addition, there is near and distal run off, causing a change in the river course over time. It was, until the 1950s, a winter seasonal camp for native Qaluyaarmiut from Newtok; indigenous people who inhabited the region for 2,000 years.[13] Traditionally the two season – two village indigenous community decamped toward summer to their second camp at Nilikluguk on Nelson Island, six miles south.

The remaining two thirds of Newtok villagers in western coastal Alaska are witnesses to the severity of climate impacts on the land they live on and the untenable and deteriorated living conditions it is creating: sinking boardwalks, and houses threatened by wind, leaning telephone poles, the disappearance of the natural waterway that carried away human waste, prevalence of illness and infection for children, and a common problem - mold. The new village of Mertarvik they will occupy, is being built, - yea, has been being built for 10 years .– Now parts of Newtok are inhabitable, and the current council is acting with more urgently.

Map showing Old Kealavik and Newtok, top, and Mertarvik (north Nelson Island). Map courtesy of Newtok Planning Group, State of Alaska, Newtok Village Relocation History, Part One: The Qaluyaarmiut - People of the Dip Net.

The group of Newtok residents who moved to Mertarvik on October 15, 2019 did not have running water nor sewer for the new school already built ,but innovative in home PASS water and disposal systems were installed by late December, 2019.[14] Interiors of 21 homes were completed by late January, 2020.

A Power plant scheduled for November, was up and running by January 2020. water treatment plant and a health clinic were completed by January, 2020. [15]

The US Fourth Climate Assessment rightly lists profound impacts on rural indigenous village of “nutrition, infrastructure, eco­nomics, and health consequences to language education, and the communities themselves”. The Newtok to Mertarvik population move belies earlier conclusions (noted herein) which were based on in situ vs. ex situ indicators only.

The establishment of a new community required Federal political assistance to operationalize this climate change forced adaptation. Republican Senator Murkowski and former Republican Senator Stevens acquired the land from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) through federal legislation signed by George W. Bush in 2003. Senator Murkowski highlighted the scale of the challenge for relocation, stating on the plane as she flew away from Newtok after her visit, “. . . there’s 30 more villages”.

Resource allocation is often a measure of governmental priorities. The Innovative Readiness Training unit of the US Department of Defense constructively engaged just one summer in building a needed new road at Mertarvik (which doubles as a landing strip), but their entire 2018 fiscal operational budget was US 18.9 million.[16] Their work for relocation of a single indigenous community in Western Alaska could not be replicated for a second community relocation - within that budget. The assistance provided to the community was extra-ordinary, given it is not a regular unit assigned to civilian-sited climate adaptation work. If Utqiagvik, the Inuit Community on the northern Alaska coast requires relocation, the closest permanent US military base to the northern most community of the United States, Utqiagvik, is at Ft. Greely; a distance of over 600 miles inland.

Elsewhere in the Arctic United States, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Engineering (USACE) Research and Development Center, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (ERDC-CRREL) is looking at how to “enhance Arctic domain awareness by examining the effects of a changing climate; and by monitoring Arctic effects on the operational environment”. It researches the “effects on infrastructure and operations resulting from exposure to extreme environmental and dynamic climactic conditions”. (DoD Arctic Strategy: 2019: 4). Directly related to the common permafrost challenges facing Alaskan communities, like Utqiagvik, USACE ERDC-CRREL is “pursuing technology to detect permafrost conditions, providing facilities to simulate Arctic conditions, as well as systems and materials evaluation and development”.

While development and use of tools to detect and record climate change impacts in the Arctic are necessary, when it comes to adaptation of indigenous communities to climate change impacts, the scale of resources needed for in situ adaptation and ex situ adaptation are exponentially larger than the scale of climate adaptation assistance deployed by the Department of Defense or (any federal agency) to date.

For example, rural Alaskans spend more on homes (either from grants or mortgages) than most Americans. Some 25% of Alaskans spend more than 30% of income on housing associated costs; though averaged for urban and rural homes, the medium home price in 2018 was $289,550, or $ 78,387 per capita for a family of four. Some 5% of all Alaska homes are overcrowded and heavily located in indigenous communities in the North and Northwestern regions.[17] Local observation places the cost for rural areas at twice that or around $500,000.[18] Self-financed home reconstruction for ex-situ community relocations under current fiscal plans appear unattainable. Based on the migration cost of Newtok, then single village of 350 persons, to a new site just nine miles away is projected to cost 115 million [19], or $ 328,571 per capita. Other Alaskan Native communities may be able to opt for “retreat” – relocation to areas not as far distant as the Newtok move, and therefore less costly, depending on the seasonal quality of the permafrost on which new sittings would be placed.

The migration of an indigenous community must necessarily consider not just monetary costs but the costs associated with subsistence that depends on access to natural resources. The seasonal migration patterns inherent to the community’s harvest of wildlife for subsistence require consideration in relocation planning, not just a safer ground upon which to relocate communal buildings and family dwellings.

The 2016 study by Hamilton, L. C., et al narrowly defined indicators according to the “data” at hand based on static population counts. The traditional seasonality of indigenous peoples’ migration is not well understood by researchers who do not engage with indigenous knowledge to improve research. Qualitative conceptualization and quantitative measurement of the human and ecological exchange between indigenous peoples and their native environments has yet to be mainstreamed methodically as a necessary part of climate adaptation research involving indigenous communities.

A wider and deeper set of indicators of climate driven migration among indigenous peoples requires direct engagement with indigenous communities to understand their threshold for in situ-vs. ex situ adaptation. Climate change impacts in Alaska and the Arctic region are advanced, but professional integration of collective decisions made by indigenous communities remains at the most basic stage. This critical disjuncture between social scientists and indigenous communities is an unmet challenge. That gap is growing.

There is a continuum of responses to indigenous climate adaptation and migration in the Arctic region. The third blog in this series illustrates some ethical, legal, and practical responses to indigenous climate adaptation and migration. It also shares information on a second indigenous climate adaptation tool for sea ice.


[1] ASCA, 43 U.S.C. 1601 et seq

[2] Economic Impacts, Alaska Native Regional Corporations Investing in Alaska, ANCSA Regional Association, https://ancsaregional.com/economic-impacts/, accessed 12-26-19

[3] Pastick, Neal J., M. Torre Jorgenson, Bruce K. Wylie, Shawn J. Nield, Kristofer D. Johnson, and Andrew O. Finley. "Distribution of near-surface permafrost in Alaska: Estimates of present and future conditions." Remote Sensing of Environment 168 (2015): 301-315.

[4] ibid,

[5] Markon, et. al. 2017.

[6] Hamilton, L. C., Saito, K., Loring, P. A., Lammers, R. B., & Huntington, H. P. (2016). Climigration? Population and climate change in Arctic Alaska. Population and environment, 38(2), 115–133. doi:10.1007/s11111-016-0259-6, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5080311/

[7] E. Barrett Ristroph, Fulfilling Climate Justice And Government Obligations To Alaska Native Villages: What Is The Government Role? 43 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol'y Rev. 501 (2019), https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmelpr/vol43/iss2/4.

[8] Gentry, B., Boyce, G. A., Garcia, J. M., & Chambers, S. N. (2019). Indigenous Survival and Settler Colonial Dispossession on the Mexican Frontier: The Case of Cedagĭ Wahia and Wo'oson O'odham Indigenous Communities. Journal of Latin American Geography, 18(1), 65-93.

[9] Climate-Induced Displacement of Alaska Native Communities, Robin Bronen, January 30, 2013, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/30-climate-alaska-bronen-paper.pdf

[10] Bronen, 2013, op cit.

[11] Relocating the Village of Newtok, Alaska due to Coastal Erosion, Kirsten Feifel and Rachel M. Gregg 7/03/2010, updated 5/08/19. https://www.cakex.org/case-studies/relocating-village-newtok-alaska-due-coastal-erosion

[12] Personal communication with E.B. Ristroph. Feb. 13, 2020. [13] Alaska State Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, Division of Community and Regional Affairs. Newtok Planning Group Newtok Village Relocation History Part One: The Qaluyaarmiut - People of the Dip Net, https://www.commerce.alaska.gov/web/dcra/planninglandmanagement/NewtokPlanningGroup/NewtokVillageRelocationHistory/NewtokHistoryPartOne.aspx, See also: We Cannot Wait, Sinking Alaska Village fids new home, Geof Koss, E&E, Climatewire, 9-4-19, https: //www.eenews.net/stories/1061110713

[14] Portable Alternative Sanitation System connects in-home sanitation systems where it was impossible before, Alaska Native Tribal Health system, March 20, 2019. https://anthc.org/news/portable-alternative-sanitation-system-connects-in-home-sanitation-systems-where-it-was-impossible-before/

[15] Op cit, Geof Koss (9-4-19), and personal communication with E.B. Ristroph, Feb.

[16]2018 IRT Summary, Innovative Readiness Training 2018, Manpower and Reserve Affairs, Department of Defense. https://irt.defense.gov/Portals/57/Documents/2018%20IRT%20Annual%20Summary.pdf?ver=2019-04-17-140148-073

[17] Alaska Rural Homeownership Resource Guide (2017)

[18] Observation of E. Barrett Ristroph. Personal communication of 4 March 2020

[19] The expenditure of US $15 million occurred by September, 2019, with $100 million projected thru 2023.


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