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February 20, 2024

As permafrost thawing threatens the village of Nunapitchuk, scientists, tribal leaders, and policy experts collaborate to create a relocation plan. Alaska CASC science and drone technology is informing their plan.

Permafrost thawing often captures headlines due to concerns about carbon release into the atmosphere, but it also destabilizes the literal foundations of many communities. The village of Nunapitchuk is built atop permafrost near the Johnson River in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta of Alaska, where CASC science indicates that residents are expected to experience a 13 degrees Fahrenheit temperature increase and a near-complete loss of permafrost by the end of the century. Yet, ten years ago, the village had already experienced enough infrastructure damage and public safety concerns to urgently begin planning their relocation to nearby packed sandy ground.  


Mike Delue from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center (IARC) and the Alaska CASC, and Tom Kurkowski from IARC set out with a drone to monitor changes to the land’s surface as permafrost thaws – and to homes, sidewalks, and other infrastructure that sits on thawing land. They have been flying a drone over 10 communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta, including Nunapitchuk to produce depictions of the ground surface known as “digital surface models.” These models can be compared over time to measure how, and where, the land is shifting.  


Mike and Tom’s data collection is part of a larger initiative, called “Permafrost Pathways” which is bringing together scientists, policy experts, and tribal members to fill gaps in science and policy related to permafrost thawing, and to help the communities work with government agencies to adapt and relocate. Though other relocations are ongoing (for example, Newtok and Napakiak), the group is focusing on Nunapitchuk for a few reasons: Nunapitchuk has identified a suitable relocation site within its jurisdiction, removing land-exchange complications; and immense community efforts have been made to work with the government and congress about these issues.  


The Nunapitchuk relocation project can serve as a reference for other communities facing similar climate threats to navigate the process of relocating, by coordinating efforts between agencies and creating funding mechanisms that don’t yet exist in the federal government. Through trainings in data collection and GIS, Permafrost Pathways wants to empower communities to independently monitor permafrost change, ensuring that communities hold the information needed to respond to potential infrastructure and public safety threats. 

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