Snowy Village

Tipping Policy: climate change and relocating Alaska villages

Kendra Zamzow
Aug 15, 2013


Kivalina. Shaktoolik. Newtok. Shishmaref.

What if your landfill and your house are tipping into the ocean due to winter storm surges associated with climate change, but your economy depends on fossil fuels? What if your government faces dissolution without the oil industry, but your population faces disruption with it?

There are 30 to 60 towns that need to be physically relocated as ocean ice, sea levels, seasons become unpredictable in Alaska.

This is not news. In 2003, the GAO reported that most of the 200 Native villages in Alaska were affected by flooding and erosion. In 2009, the GAO reported:

“At least 12 of the 31 threatened villages have decided to relocate….. Federal programs to assist,… protect and relocate them   are limited and unavailable to some villages.”

The issue requires creative and thoughtful input. A relocation of this type has never occurred before; there is no federal legal framework.  Meanwhile, the state government depends on oil and gas companies for 90% of its tax revenue, and climate deniers fight response efforts.  This leaves villages needing to negotiate with dozens of separate agencies to build a new community infrastructure.  

It has made for difficult politics.  

  •  In 2008, Governor Palin formed the Alaska Climate Change Impact Mitigation Program to provide funding.  In 2011, Governor Parnell dismantled it.  In 2013, he pushed for $5 billion in tax relief for the oil industry, which narrowly passed; it does not appear that the state intends to tax the oil industry to fund relocations.  
  • Mark Begich is a new senator. In 2009, his “maiden” Senate speech was passionate on climate change, but bills that could fund relocation have not moved.  As one of the most vulnerable senators in the upcoming 2014 election, he is unlikely to maintain a strong stand on climate legislation.
  • Senator Lisa Murkowski has been a senator since 2002.  She sits on the Appropriations Committee, Indian Affairs Committee, and is a ranking member of the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.  However, her website devotes a single sentence to the issue along with a 3-minute video. A member of her staff told me that her contribution to climate legislation was support for the Water Resources Development Act.  WRDA is a troubled funding mechanism for Army Corps of Engineer projects nationally. WRDA is not a solution.


Robin Bronen, Alaskan human rights attorney, called for Congress to form a government relocation framework at a federal level to prepare for more moves caused by climate change -- in Alaska and beyond.

"What's happening in Alaska is really relevant to coastal communities all over the United States," she said.

The estimated cost to move each Alaska village is $100 million or more. #ClimateCosts $6 billion, and rising.

Climate change will have tipping points. Political tipping points are needed to drive legislation.  The President’s came with his climate change speech at the end of June. What will be the tipping points for state governments and Congress?

Kivalina. Shaktoolik. Newtok. Shishmaref. Golovin. Hughes. Allakaket. Teller. Huslia. Nulato. Koyukuk. Unalakleet…

(top photo:  Aerial view from Kivalina before the construction of the wall in 2008. Courtesy of Millie Hawley, Kivalina.  Accessed from Durrer, P. 2011. “Global warming issues are here”: ethnography of a motionless relocation in Kivalina, AK.Thesis.)


Kendra Zamzow

Kendra Zamzow is an AAAS S&T Policy Fellow, class of 2012, at the EPA ORD Office of Science Policy. Prior to her fellowship, she was a public interest scientist in Alaska providing technical assistance on water quality at proposed, present, or abandoned mines.

Raised in California, she moved to Alaska in 1986 and became a commercial fisherman until 2001. She received her Ph.D. in 2007. Her interests are trace metal chemistry, and communication between local knowledge and the scientific community. When not in Washington DC, she lives in a yurt in the village of Nay’di’nae’ah’na (Chickaloon), Alaska.  Her website is


This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, its Council, Board of Directors, officers, or members. AAAS is not responsible for the accuracy of this material. AAAS has made this material available as a public service, but this does not constitute endorsement by the association.

Comments (1)

Darshan Karwat (not verified)
December 17, 2013 at 8:27 am
All, To echo Kendra, you may find this short piece from Orion Magazine very interesting. It talks about Newtok in particular. Relocating Newtok A Yup'ik village determined to preserve its cultural identity faces a costly move to higher ground Peace, Darshan

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