Entire Tribal Towns Forced to Relocate Due to Climate Crisis

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Coastal habitats in most northern states lose up to seventy feet of their land annually due to erosion caused by climate change, forcing entire Indigenous communities to relocate. The Biden administration paid the first three villages in Alaska and Washington $25 million to move their key buildings away from the rising waters, a first managed retreat for Indigenous communities in the country, with many more to come. However, the amount of aid will not even cover the cost of a new school, according to a series of December 2022 reports by Emily Schwing for Alaska Public Media and High Country News.

Relocating entire communities at once is the most extreme way to adapt to climate change. Relocations are likely to become more common as conditions worsen, with dozens, if not hundreds, of mostly Indigenous communities being forced to relocate. Managed retreats are disruptive, uprooting entire communities and cultures, adding complicated layers to each community’s exodus, from choosing new locations to allocating the funds provided by the Interior Department.

The first communities to receive $25 million were Newtok, in southwest Alaska; Napakiak, on the shore of the Kuskokwim River; and the Quinault Indian Nation, on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. The selection was based on applying five criteria including the community’s degree of planning, the risk level of its current situation, readiness to move, and having a new site selected.

The town of Newtok has chosen Mertavik as its new location. To cover the basics, at least 54 houses, an airport, a power grid, and a road system need to be built. The project cost has been estimated between $120-300 million. Other top-priority projects, including a sewage system and  health clinic, would add an estimated $105 million to relocation costs.

A further challenge is navigating the rules that dictate what funding can and cannot be spent on. In a January 2023 article for High Country News, Patrick LeMay, the Newtok relocation project manager, explained: “According to the Interior Department, it is supposed to support core infrastructure. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs—which is part of the Interior Department—does not consider housing infrastructure.” The rest of the money must be scrapped together from different agencies with their own requirements. With the current retreats being the first of their kind, many questions remain about funding for dozens of additional communities that are likely to need to relocate in the near future.

As of February 2023, Emily Schwing has been the journalist covering the story in the most detail, for Alaska Public Radio and High Country News. There has been some corporate news coverage of aspects of the story. Christopher Flavelle filed two articles for the New York Times, and the Washington Post ran an article of its own. While the New York Times’ reporting provided a more generic overview of the story, and the Post report did not mention relocation funding from the Biden administration, local and independent news outlets, including the Anchorage Daily News and the sources cited here, have emphasized the full scope of the relocations’ impacts and included the perspectives of community leaders. The government’s allocation of funding for relocation has been reported by a number of other outlets, including CNBC, USA Today, and The Hill.

Sources:

Emily Schwing, “Interior Department Puts $40m Toward Community Relocation Efforts for Newtok and Napakiak,” Alaska Public Media, December 3, 2022.

Emily Schwing, “Newtok Residents are Desperate to Relocate After September Storm,” Alaska Public Media, October 7, 2022.

Emily Schwing, “How Far Can $25 Million Go to Relocate a Community that is Disappearing into Alaska’s Melting Permafrost?” High Country News, January 18, 2023.

Student Researcher: Jette-Mari Stammer (North Central College)
Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)