US to Relocate Tribal Groups Due to Climate Change

Relocating entire communities is a huge endeavor that can cost up to $1 million per household.

Rising Seas And Warming Temperatures Force Alaskan Coastal Community To Move Inland
Elevated, raised wooden sidewalks were created so people don't sink into the melting permafrost in Newtok, Alaska.

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

The Biden administration has allocated $135 million to help Native American groups grappling with the climate crisis, with about half of the funds going to three tribes that need to relocate due to severe flooding, erosion, and destructive storms.

The Newtok Village and the Native Village of Napakiak, both in Alaska, and the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state will each receive $25 million to relocate to safer grounds.

These communities face multiple threats. Newtok is losing around 80 feet of land a year due to coastal erosion from ocean storms and thawing permafrost, Napakiak is being hit with erosion, storm surges, and flooding, and Quinault is vulnerable to sea level rise, storm surges, and river flooding.

Eight communities in Alaska, Maine, California, Louisiana, and Arizona will each receive $5 million to help them cope with climate risks including wildfires, flooding, drought, and food insecurity.

“As part of the federal government’s treaty and trust responsibility to protect tribal sovereignty and revitalize tribal communities, we must safeguard Indian Country from the intensifying and unique impacts of climate change,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland during the announcement last week. “Helping these communities move to safety on their homelands is one of the most important climate-related investments we could make in Indian Country.”

In addition to these grants, the bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $130 million for community relocation and $86 million for climate resilience and adaptation projects in tribal lands.

The funding comes as indigenous communities continue wrestling with climate change and environmental degradation.

“I'm happy to see the large dollar amount because many of the grants that I've been able to assess are very small and a larger amount will help these communities plan and be more effective, and potentially even do some shovel projects,” said Davin Holen an Associate Professor & Coastal Community Resilience Specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

In a study published in 2020, the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimated that around $5 billion will be needed to address tribal infrastructure threats and much of that money will go toward relocating Native American communities to higher ground “as climate change and other environmental hazards are encroaching on their land and infrastructure.”

Alaska's Climate Crisis

About half of the grant money is earmarked for Alaska, where the situation is dire.

According to a 2019 statewide assessment, more than 70 out of over 200 Alaska Native villages face serious environmental threats such as erosion, flooding, and thawing permafrost, and many of them will need to relocate within the next few decades. 

Holen told Treehugger that relocating entire villages is a mammoth endeavor that could cost around $1 million per household because it would require specialized materials and skilled labor, as well as long-term planning and sophisticated engineering strategies.

But one of the biggest challenges will be to find suitable spaces for relocation because neighboring areas will likely face similar environmental threats.

“People in Alaska are very tied to the landscape so they would ideally move somewhere near where they can still access the same resources because they have this close kinship to those spaces. And oftentimes that means they will have to deal with land ownership, which creates another layer of issues,” Holen said. 

Federal agencies allocated some $200 million between 2016 and 2020 to help these communities deal with environmental threats but due to ongoing bureaucratic hurdles, many of these villages were unable to access the funds.

Holen is concerned that the government may have chosen these two communities as a “token” when there are dozens of Alaskan villages that need funds for relocation and climate mitigation.

“We need to really consider the equity issue. We need to ensure that all places that are being impacted have access to that funding,” he said. 

Permafrost Crisis

Climate Change Causes Permafrost Melt In Alaska
Permafrost, which is found beneath nearly 85% of Alaska, has been melting due to rising temperatures.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Although the global average temperature has increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the industrial revolution, numerous studies show that temperatures are rising at least twice as fast in the Arctic. 

Higher temperatures and increased rainfall are melting the permafrost, a layer of solid ice that can go half a mile deep, and which covers 85% of the state’s land area.

A 2021 study estimated that up to 500,000 people in Alaska and the Russian Arctic will need to be relocated due to permafrost melting threatening infrastructure above ground, including homes, roads, and schools. In total, 3.3 million people in Arctic regions of the U.S., Canada, Russia, Scandinavia, Greenland, and Iceland will be affected by permafrost melting in the next few decades, researchers say.

In May, the Native Village of Point Lay became the first tribe in Alaska to declare a climate emergency due to thawing permafrost. 

In its resolution, the village council wrote that the climate crisis is threatening "homes, infrastructure, families, community, region, state, nation, civilization, humanity and the natural world."

The Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy estimates that temperatures in the Arctic Slope region, where Point Lay is, have risen by 5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past five decades. 

The thermometer hit 40 degrees F in Utqiagvik this week, the highest-ever temperature recorded in this North Slope community in December.

View Article Sources
  1. "Biden-Harris Administration Makes $135 Million Commitment to Support Relocation of Tribal Communities Affected by Climate Change." U.S. Department of the Interior, 2022.

  2. Rantanen, Mika, et al. “The Arctic Has Warmed Nearly Four Times Faster than the Globe since 1979.” Communications Earth & Environment, vol. 3, no. 1, 2022, doi:10.1038/s43247-022-00498-3

  3. Ramage, Justine, et al. “Population Living on Permafrost in the Arctic.” Population and Environment, vol. 43, no. 1, 2021, pp. 22–38., doi:10.1007/s11111-020-00370-6