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Artic Communities in Alaska Apply Traditional Knowledge and Sovereignty to Resiliency

Rising temperatures with climate change has been more abrupt at the poles, causing extreme melting of a once frozen Arctic. Alaska Native Village communities (Villages) of the Seward Peninsula along the state’s northwestern coast, which is no longer predictably protected by sea ice, have been increasingly confronted by super storm surges, coastal erosion, flooding and related impacts to infrastructure, drinking water, and human health. The situation has gotten so bad that many of these communities are forced with relocating entire communities or are waiting for the “next superstorm” before critical infrastructure such as power plants, schools or sewage treatment facilities are flooding or fall into the ocean.

In addition, increased stream temperatures, altered ice conditions, and increased stream bank erosion threaten to directly impact fishery and wildlife habitat while making traditional travel routes hazardous. 

Finally, reduced water quality caused by increasing sediments, toxic effluents, and other impacts from industrial, mining, and other developments can further exacerbate the growing impacts of climate change on subsistence resources and human health. Yet even as Arctic communities in Alaska are experiencing unprecedented impacts from climate change, federal programs and funding needed to address such impacts are being curtailed.

Despite these challenges, with technical support from Water Policy Consulting, LLC (WPC) and the Model Forest Policy Project (MFPP), the Villages are using Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and conventional data, and collaboration with other local federal, state and tribal governmental entities and consortiums to conduct regional and local climate change adaption planning, address gaps in federal programs, and increase resiliency. For example, beginning in 2010, the Norton Bay Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (NBITWC) and the Native Villages of Elim, Koyuk, Unalakleet and Shaktoolik initiated a  Norton Sound adaptation planning process which, generally, follows the “Steps to Resilience” under the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit including: 1) Explore Hazards; 2) Assess Vulnerability and Risks; 3) Investigate Options; 4) Prioritize and Plan; and 5) Take Action.

Beginning in 2011, as part of Step 1 – Explore Hazards, the Native Village of Elim(NVE) and the NBITWCworked with it’s partners to monitor environmental conditions and initiated a planning effort to identify risk from climate change and potential mining development activities within the Norton Bay Watershed (Watershed). The results were an Assessment of Mining Impacts on Subsistence, Ecosystems of the Tubutulik River Watershed; the Quality Assurance Project Plan for the NVE Tubutulik River Subsistence Protection Project; and the NVE Instream Flow Water Reservation Application (Planning Documents).  

These documents were developed using both Traditional Environmental Knowledge (TEK) and contemporary science including the local community in decision making by holding community gatherings participation in public gatherings and surveys designed to gather TEK including fishing, hunting and gathering activities and observations and concerns and share strategies, success stories and collaborate about the Watershed and local observer networks; gathering water flow, quality and temperature data and implementing the Planning Documents to address the potential impacts of mining activity and climate change on subsistence resources and human health and welfare within the Tubutulik River Watershed.

As part of Step 2 – Assess Vulnerability and Risks, the NBITWC and its partners engaged the Climate Solution’s University (CSU) Adaptation Plan Development Program created by the Model Forest Policy Program (MFPP) to develop the Norton Bay Climate Change Adaption Plan (NBCCAP). For over a year, this process engaged an array of stakeholders and expertise in building partnerships, gathering extensive information, thinking critically, and planning focused on a community-based team effort. The result was a regional actionable plan that the Norton Bay community and supporters have been implementing over the past several years.  For more details, see this related article about the plan.

As part of Step 3 – Investigate Options, NBITWC and NVE, with grant funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Resilience Program, presented a one-year climate adaptation planning curriculum from July 2016 through May 2017. The curriculum informed and guided Alaskan Native community leaders and staff to develop Localized Climate Change Adaptation Plans (LCCAPs) through the process of assessing local climate risks; developing strategies to address those risks; and beginning to build the information, funding and resource capacity to take action for climate adaptation and community resilience.  

Participants in the curriculum gained a clear understanding of the impacts from climate change in Alaska, how that translates to locally specific climate risks, the range of adaptation options to address risks, and actions communities can take. For details, see this related article on the training curriculum.

As part of next steps in the Norton Sound climate adaption planning process, the NBITWC and NVE entered deeper into Step 4 – “Prioritize and Plan”, by continuing our efforts to assist the Villages with climate resiliency planning. To this end, the Norton Sound Local Climate Change Adaption Planning Project will support the creation of climate-resilient action plans for Alaska Native Villages in the Norton Sound. Under the project, using a step by step process, participants will be provided with the information and tools needed to write a local adaptation plan and be ready to move into Step 5 – Take Action in a variety of ways that make sense for their community.

In addition, NBITWC and it’s village partners have obtained funding to assist the Villages in applying for Hazard Mitigation Planning and to apply existing water quality and quantity baseline data; climate change scenarios, maps, background information and research; watershed assessments; and planning documents to take specific actions that will protect rivers and streams that support fish and wildlife habitat and subsistence uses, from climate change and development of related temperature increases and low flows using habitat improvement measures.

Finally, the NBITWC is engaging in a dialogue with other indigenous communities and nations, including the Inuit Circumpolar Council, the Arctic Circle, the Group on Earth Observations, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the European Polar Board (EPB) and the Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON), NBITWC to help the Villages respond and adapt to climate change.

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