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Climate Change, Coastal Tribes and Indigenous Communities

March 11, 2015

Sea level rise, associated with climate change, is threatening natural resources, communities and cultures across the United States, its territories and freely associated states. 

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Scientists radio-tag walruses in the Chukchi and Bering seas to better understand their movements and foraging behavior, Arctic Ocean. (Photo by USGS)

Sea level rise, associated with climate change, is threatening natural resources, communities and cultures across the United States, its territories and freely associated states.  Climate change will impact many indigenous communities and may well endanger sacred and traditional living sites, cultural practices, local forests and ecosystems, traditional foods and water quality. In response, scientists are working with coastal communities throughout the nation to study the impacts of climate change on the health and vitality of the social, economic and natural systems of these communities.

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the Interior Department would make available $8 million to fund projects that promote tribal climate change adaptation and ocean and coastal management planning through its Tribal Climate Resilience Program.

“Tribes and indigenous cultures and communities across the nation are already being challenged by drought, sea level rise, coastal erosion, altered snow regimes and more frequent and severe storms,” said Doug Beard, acting associate director of the U.S. Geological Survey Climate and Land Use program. “Our climate science centers are committed to working with indigenous and tribal communities to provide the science needed for climate-resilient and sustainable communities.”

To further support coastal tribes and indigenous peoples in addressing challenges of climate change, the Department of the Interior is conducting research at its eight regionally located Climate Science Centers. The mission of the DOI Climate Science Centers is to guide policy makers and managers of parks, refuges and other cultural and natural areas on how to help species, ecosystems and human communities adapt to climate change.

Continue reading to view summaries of current and ongoing scientific research into climate change, sea level rise, and the impact on coastal communities by several DOI Climate Science Centers.

At the DOI’s Pacific Islands Climate Science Center:

Image: Mai Hawaii
Contrast of streamflow and foliage in diverse Hawaiian ecosystem.Public domain

In Hawai’i, a state known for its lush tropical islands and indigenous peoples, scientists are developing a model to estimate the effect of climate change on Hawai’i’s streams. Scientists will study changes in streamflow in relation to changes in rainfall to see how climate change may affect water availability and native aquatic animal habitats in the future.  The results of this study will provide critical information for managing Hawai`i's limited freshwater resources, and for understanding how climate change may impact aquatic ecosystems, agriculture, and traditional and customary practices that are entirely dependent on freshwater from streams.

View the project information and summary here.

Two other studies in Hawai`i are exploring climate change impacts on coral reefs.  Researchers agree climate change poses the single greatest long-term threat to coral reefs. Among other impacts, climate change is expected to result in more frequent severe tropical storms and severe coral bleaching events. Coral bleaching is caused by environmental stress and causes coral reefs to expel their symbiotic algae from their tissues, turn white and eventually the afflicted coral can die. Coral reefs are also under great pressure from human activities, like overfishing and coastal development, that increase their sensitivity to climate change threats.

On the island of Maui scientists are developing a tool to help coral reef managers make science-based decisions; this tool can map, assess, value and simulate changes in the coral reef ecosystems under different climate change scenarios. Hawai`i's coral reefs provide seafood, areas for recreation and tourism, coastal protection and support the traditional lifestyles and values of the state’s native cultures. The research will show potential climate change impacts and help land and coastal managers make informed decisions to create resilient coral reefs and coastal communities.

View the project information and summary here.

Image: Divers Conducting Assessments of Reef Resilience
Divers from the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands reef resiliency team conduct assessments of reef resilience in the Marianas archipelago. (Photo by USGS)

In the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, a research team and reef management partners have developed a framework to provide information on how to reduce stress on coral reef ecosystems from human activities, inform short- and long-term planning, and influence the region’s monitoring program. The research will help managers maintain sustainable use and cultural values associated with coastal communities while supporting reef resiliency.

View the project information and summary here.

At the DOI’s Northwest Climate Science Center:

Image: Coast Salish Canoe Journey
Coast Salish Canoe Journey 2009 landing in Pillar Point, WA. Each year Northwest Indian tribes collaborate with USGS to measure salinity, temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen in the Salish Sea. The Swinomish Tribe was recently awarded national recognition for their leadership in building community resilience to climate change. (Photo by Carol Reiss/USGS)

Scientists, along with members of Washington State’s Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, are addressing climate change threats to the Tribe’s land, wildlife, culture and community health. As sea levels rise, coastal erosion intensifies. The Swinomish Reservation on Fidalgo Island is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise given its location off the coast of Seattle, surrounded on three sides by 27 miles of saltwater shoreline. The reservation’s elevation ranges from sea level to just a few hundred feet in the forested uplands. The Swinomish have always been a fishing Tribe, relying on salmon, shellfish, marine mammals, forage fish, wild game and berries to support their traditions and community well being. One important part of preparing for climate change is identifying a full range of probable impacts from declining natural resources like shellfish, to damaged infrastructure such as roads and buildings, to compromised community health. The Swinomish are taking action to build community resilience by implementing the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative. With funding from the Northwest Climate Science Center and the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative, the Swinomish have conducted a pioneering study to combine assessments of ecological health with newly developed community health indicators to identify priority adaptation tactics. For more information watch a webinar about the project here.

At the DOI’s Alaska Climate Science Center:

Image: Eskimo Volunteers Helping with Banding
Two Yupik Eskimo students from Chevak, Alaska holding a tundra swan cygnet. These student volunteers were helping with an annual USGS waterfowl banding program along the Kashunuk River near the Bering Sea coast in western Alaska.

Scientists, biologists, sociologists and anthropologists joined together to evaluate potential vulnerabilities among economic and cultural resources that are vital to the Bering Sea region’s nine island communities. This research has shown how novel weather patterns and warmer ocean waters threaten the viability of traditional subsistence harvesting in many areas, while changes in sea ice and fish stocks promise to bring tremendous changes to the commercial shipping and fishing industries.  These results underscore the practical applications of linked climate and ecosystem modeling, while also illustrating how scientists can better tailor their research products to meet the needs of resource managers and decision makers in island communities.

View the project information and summary here.

At the DOI’s Southwest Climate Science Center:

Image: Pyramid Lake
Pyramid Lake, Nevada, not only holds deep cultural connections for the Paiute Tribe and tribal member Dan Mosely (pictured), but also supports a tribal economy centered on fishing and recreational activities. (Photo courtesy of Karletta Chief)

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has deep cultural, physical and spiritual connections to Pyramid Lake, a terminal desert lake fed by the Truckee River in Nevada. The Paiute rely on Lahontan cutthroat trout fisheries for their livelihoods, but warmer temperatures, decreasing rain and snowfall, and diminished water quality threaten the tribe’s traditions and economic ties to their environment. Researchers are gathering data and traditional cultural knowledge to help the tribe develop water management strategies and adapt to climate change.

View the project information and summary here.


Learn More

National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center

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