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Climate Refugees: The First of Many Alaskan Village Relocations

By: Anna Wilk

Image courtesy of Unsplash

It’s common to hear the term climate migrant and feel removed from the conversation; many people believe that these experiences occur only outside of the United States. This is why it is even more important to bring instances of climate migration within our nation to light. Many communities throughout the U.S. have been living in fear of necessary migration for decades. One such example is Newtok, a Yupik Eskimo village located on the Ninglick River beside the Bering Sea. The individuals and families living within this village have long relied on seasonal subsistence. The area's proximity to the coast and low elevation has caused it to be more greatly affected by climate change than communities living further inland.

Every year part of the coast erodes including some years when nearly 100 feet of coastal land falls into the water. In 2004, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that the entire village would have eroded into the ocean by 2019. Placed between the Ninglik and Newtok Rivers, the village is shrinking rapidly as the warming atmosphere causes the permafrost to melt and the rivers to overtake the land. Earth’s rising temperatures have resulted in changes to snow cover and precipitation patterns, changes in flooding and erosion, species shifts, melting permafrost, more wildfires, more acidic oceans, and the later formation of sea ice. The melting permafrost in turn releases more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere which augments the rate of climate change even more.

Without proper support and preparation, the migration of entire communities can be an extremely difficult process. Although the process of relocation to the town of Metarvik, a 25-minute boat ride, has been in the works for almost 30 years, two-thirds of the population of Newtok remains in the village today. The delay is due to the slow construction of housing because of a lack of necessary funds from the U.S. government. The people of Newtok have been in conversations with local and state agencies about the need to move to higher and more stable ground since the 1990s. The U.S. Congress agreed to create the new village of Mertarvik in 2003, but the implementation of infrastructure including roads, power stations, landfills, community centers, and houses has been slow and the first residents only began moving into Mertarvik in 2019. Electricity has been installed, but it could take many more years before running water reaches the village. This past fall, the Department of Interior announced that it would supply the village with a $25 million grant to help support the transition. Unfortunately, this is far from the amount required to relocate the remaining community members across the river; the completion of the town of Mertarvik is estimated to cost between $120-300 million.

The relocation of families has not only been logistically difficult but emotionally as well. As some households are moved, they leave behind friends and family who remain in areas that are susceptible to flooding and harsh storm damage. Additionally, Newtok has been home to some families for generations, and while they may feel relieved to be moving to a safer location, they are also bittersweet about leaving their community and memories behind.

This case is important not only because of how it influences the lives of this particular community but also because it will be used as a demonstration of the necessity for governments throughout the world to begin saving funds to allocate toward mitigating climate change relocations as it will only become more common. In addition to providing $25 million to the relocation of the Newtok community, the Department of the Interior (DOI) committed a further $90 million to 10 other severely impacted Tribal communities to “advance relocation efforts”. This is part of a new effort by the Biden-Harris Administration known as the Voluntary Community-Driven Relocation Program adopted on November 30th of 2022. Under the guidance of the DOI and with subsequent support from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) in collaboration with the Denali Commission, this program is meant to get ahead of the climate-induced destruction of indigenous community land. Anthropogenic climate change affects everyone near and far from our own communities, and it's important to be aware of the reality that anyone can be a climate refugee. Furthermore, it is necessary to push for our government to continue providing resources to communities in need and pressure legislators to advocate for more legislative action relating to adaptation methods for relocating communities.


Works Cited

“Biden-Harris Administration Makes $135 Million Commitment to Support Relocation of Tribal Communities Affected by Climate Change.” U.S. Department of the Interior, November 30, 2022.

Ilhardt, Julia. “'It Was Sad Having to Leave': Climate Crisis Splits Alaskan Town in Half.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, June 8, 2021.,be%20completely%20lost%20by%202019.

Ristroph, Elizaveta Barrett. “Navigating Climate Change Adaptation Assistance for Communities: A Case Study of Newtok Village, Alaska.” Journal of environmental studies and sciences. U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 23, 2021.

Schwing , Emily. “How Far Can $25 Million Go to Relocate a Community That's Disappearing into Alaska's Melting Permafrost?” High Country News – Know the West, January 18, 2023.

Schwing, Emily. “Newtok Residents Are Desperate to Relocate after September Storm.” Alaska Public Media, October 7, 2022.,population%20remains%20back%20in%20Newtok.


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