Nunapitchuk prepares to relocate as thawing permafrost threatens livelihoods

Nunapitchuk is a Southwest Alaska community about 30 miles northwest of Bethel and one of three tundra villages along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta
Published: Oct. 6, 2023 at 11:16 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Some villages and communities, across Alaska, are preparing to relocate as they say climate change has been having devastating impacts on their lands.

Alaska Natives say they’ve been watching their landscape change across the years as many brace for change.

“Nunapitchuk,” it means “small tundra land,’” Morris J. Alexie, Nunapitchuk permafrost liaison, said.

Alexie said he’s served nearly every role in the City of Nunapitchuk, which is a Southwest Alaska community about 30 miles northwest of Bethel, and one of three tundra villages along the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

“We want Nunapitchuk to be known of our very existence is at hand,” Alexie said.

Permafrost within the land the Yup’ik community sits on has been becoming less and less stable as the climate has been changing, Alexie said.

“Climate warming has quickened. It’s happening. I know, all over the world, but in Alaska it is three times worse.”

The K-12 school is the only building in the city that has running water and plumbing. The ground isn’t stable enough for plumbing to be installed across much of the land, Alexie said. The ground there used to be more stable.

“The very ground we are living on is becoming quicksand and I call it ‘Alaska quicksand,’” he said.

Boardwalks connect much of the community, which are underwater much of the year from thawing permafrost. The boardwalks aren’t stable or able to be kept permanently installed.

“They’re very laser straight the first year and after the winter snow is gone they’re already slanted, sideways,” Alexie said. “They try to stiffen them or put plates, metal plates to lift them up.”

There are areas in Nunapitchuk where structures are attempted to be built, where crews dig 30 feet into the ground before it’s solid enough to build. There isn’t a corner of the community that isn’t inundated with water at times, including the Post Office, stores and the airstrip. There are no roads that go in and out of the community. Nunapitchuk is only accessible by aircraft.

“Their smokehouses, their sweat lodges, they’re under the water most of the good summer to gather,” Alexie said.

Alexie said he hopes to get into a position where the entire community can move to higher ground within the next five years.

“Right now I would say we’re very close, and we are almost done with the requirements that they are asking for,” he said.

The Permafrost Vulnerability Assessment they’ve been working on for a few years was completed last week and assesses the cost of relocation at about $277 million. The next step, Alexie said, is to complete their master plan.