Research Briefs

Moving a village

How can communities respond when climate change threatens?

Moving a vlliage: Aerial view of Kivalina, Alaska, USA

Aerial view of Kivalina, Alaska, USA. View is to the southeast. (Courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library, via Wikimedia Commons.

December 16, 2013 | As climate change begins affecting coastal areas, some Native American communities are making plans to relocate their entire villages. Researchers from NCAR and several universities recently examined the obstacles to relocation, which can be exacerbated by poverty as well as past experiences of injustice. The researchers also explored how the U.S. government could help assist communities facing climate migration, while making sure their human rights are protected.

“Migration has always been a response to climate changes, long before nation-states existed,” said Heather Lazrus, an environmental anthropologist at NCAR. “It’s more complicated now.”

In addition to residents feeling attached to a place, there are legal rights to consider, including citizenship and land ownership. Ideally, Lazrus said, communities should be involved in the planning of their relocation, have support and assistance from government agencies, and move to a place where physical infrastructure and the means to make a living have already been established.

Lazrus and her colleagues recently published an article in a special issue of Climatic Change that includes case studies of tribal communities in coastal Alaska and the swampland bayous in Louisiana. Permafrost melt, erosion, and saltwater intrusion have reduced the amount of stable land available for housing, reduced the availability of freshwater, and made the communities more vulnerable to storms.

For example, the Inupiat people living in Kivalina, an Alaskan village north of the Arctic Circle, have inhabited that area for thousands of years. They were forced to settle on a seasonal hunting ground in 1905, when the federal government began requiring that tribal children be enrolled in schools, the researchers said. But by the 1950s, sea ice that normally protected the area from spring and autumn storms started forming later and melting earlier, leaving the village vulnerable to erosion. In 1992, the community formally voted to relocate, but the effort has been slowed by the fact that there is no federal agency tasked with assisting communities such as theirs.

Most assistance programs and funding are available only after a disaster occurs. The researchers recommend the federal government establish a lead agency, similar to the Resettlement Administration created in 1935 to assist Dust Bowl refugees, and allow the Federal Emergency Management Agency to assist these communities.

Since Native American tribes have a long history of forced relocations by European settlers and the U.S. government, some of which occurred as recently as the 1940s, it is especially important that tribes have a lead role in planning discussions, Lazrus said. An international discussion has also begun to try to establish how to cover the costs of relocations due to climate change.

Even if migration doesn’t appear necessary for communities in the short term, they should have contingency plans in case a large storm or catastrophe quickly changes conditions. “People need to start planning for it,” Lazrus said.

Julie Koppel Maldonado, Christine Shearer, Robin Bronen, Kristina Peterson, and Heather Lazrus, 2013, The impact of climate change on tribal communities in the US: displacement, relocation, and human rights. Climatic Change, Vol. 120, Issue 3, pp. 601-614. DOI10.1007/s10584-013-0746-z