The sky was an unusually clear blue on a crisp October afternoon, but wind kept blowing the narrow black drone off its delicate course. And the battery kept dying.
Tom Kurkowski and science communicator Mike Delue, drone pilots with the University of Alaska Fairbanks International Arctic Research Center, weren’t going to give up on getting the drone into the air to photograph parts of Nunapitchuk in sharp detail.
“I bet every pilot is like, ‘I wish I had a weather control device,’” Delue said as they waited for the wind to die down. The drone would rise up and hover before climbing to precisely 400 feet, while Delue and Kurkowski monitored its course on a screen. The drone had to be steady as it scanned the town, creating a grid out of lots and lots of pictures.
“Landing,” Delue said, catching the drone. “So I’ll just grab it. And then that’s the readout of everything. So that’s the photos that have already been taken: 1,328 photos, but there’s 2,158 photos to cover that polygon, that area we wanted, and it’s just some other details.”
“Those photos will have a lot of overlap between them. Each photo, in software, we can then fit them together like a puzzle piece. And you see the school here, and the school here in the same photo,” Delue said, pointing to the tiny dots filling the screen. “You slide them together. And you do that over and over and over again, and you end up with a photo of town. It looks like a satellite image, but at a much higher resolution.”
The images map the depth of the ground surface, showing how high and low the land is in what’s known as a digital surface model. UAF faculty will come back and scan the village again in a year or two to track how the ground has changed.
Nunapitchuk is one of 10 communities in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta that will be scanned and rescanned again in the coming years. That will help researchers understand a root question: how is permafrost in a changing climate affecting the ground surface and, in turn, everything that sits on top of it?
“Once we can take another model, say after the summer or next fall, then when that changes the deck detection, where we can see ‘Oh, this used to be 1 foot above river level and now it’s 0.7 feet above river level,’” Delue said. “Then you can start to examine: ‘Was that because of permafrost that we’re seeing those specific changes? And what’s the rate of that change?’”
Permafrost melt’s colossal impact on global emissions
Right now, there’s not much known about the effects of permafrost melt on the climate, carbon emissions, and local populations. It’s an issue globally, because the perennially frozen layer of ground beneath the tundra holds a massive amount of ancient carbon.
The icy layer beneath Nunapitchuk has stored ancient organic material for millennia, that it releases when it thaws. A 2022 study in “Nature” wrote that Arctic permafrost stores almost 1,700 billion metric tons of frozen and thawing carbon, as well as microbes, chemicals and greenhouse gasses. How much of that gets released will have a major impact on the planet. A 2022 study in the “Annual Review of Environment and Resources” wrote that if nothing is done, the high-range scenario estimates Arctic carbon emissions from permafrost melt to be equivalent to 100 years of emissions in 2019 from 22 European countries and the U.S. combined.
Scientists and environmental advocates are worried because the colossal potential emissions from melting permafrost are largely left out of global climate models.
Permafrost Pathways: studying the Arctic
Delue and Kurkoski are gathering their drone-scanned information on Nunapitchuk because they’re part of Permafrost Pathways, a collaboration of scientists, policy experts, and tribal members stemming from a $41 million grant launched in 2022 to try to fill scientific and policy gaps on permafrost melt.
The initiative is led by the Woodwell Climate Institute and partners with the Harvard Kennedy University, Alaska Institute of Justice, Alaska villages and others. They’re also working with 10 villages, including Nunapitchuk, to help them adapt, work with government agencies, gather data and drive policy change.
Woodwell Research Center Senior Scientist Sue Natali is the project lead for the Permafrost Pathways collaboration. She said that she started to notice permafrost zones in the Arctic degrading around 2008.
“More recently, in 2015, I started working on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. And I can’t quite remember the year, but I do remember then coming back and seeing land, say where I had been taking some measurements, and it was gone,” Natali said. “Because it was collapsing.”
“In the communities, I see it much faster. And as you know, like when I talk with people who are definitely younger than me, l hear people talk about changes in the landscape and vegetation. Like, ‘I used to go berry picking here,’ and then you see that’s now, like, a wetland. That’s really quite startling. There’s also lakes that go away from one year to the next,” Natali said.
According to a 2022 study published in the journal “Communications Earth and Environment,” the Arctic has warmed almost four times faster than the rest of the globe. This warming is known as Arctic amplification. The University of Alaska’s Alaska Climate Adaptation Center’s Northern Climate Report predicts Nunapitchuk’s average annual temperatures may increase by about 13 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Nunapitchuk is already on relatively warm permafrost. Using NOAA’s Earth System Model, the report shows that there will be almost no permafrost left under Nunapitchuk by 2099.
When Natali imagined Nunapitchuk’s landscape in 150 years, she said that it will look different.
“Hopefully we’ll have control of our climate in 150 years. And then the land, some of it will have been lost, you know? I mean, erosion is lost, it’s not going to build itself back up that quickly,” Natali said. “Some will be lost with big, abrupt land collapses that will be lost. Some places will probably be more wetlands, you know, areas where the ground is sinking, areas where some of the ground has gone underneath the water. But I really do hope in 150 years, we are on a very, very, very different climate trajectory.”
Building policy around Nunapitchuk to expedite relocations
The Alaska Institute of Justice, a nonprofit created to defend Alaskans’ human rights, is part of the Permafrost Pathways group. Robin Bronen, the co-founder and executive director, said that the institute began to assist Nunapitchuk after a 2009 report identified the communities most imminently threatened by permafrost melt. The institute reached out to see if those communities wanted their support, and 15 said yes.
“Nunapitchuk was one of those communities,” Bronen said. “So we began supporting the tribes who wanted to work with us on doing the community based environmental monitoring, and then also doing this ongoing policy analysis to understand what the barriers were that were preventing communities from accessing the resources they needed.”
The Alaska Institute of Justice also helped the village of Newtok in its ongoing relocation project to Mertarvik. Now it’s helping Nunapitchuk prepare for a similar move.
“So for Nunapitchuk, what we’re hoping is that that community’s relocation can be a pilot project for the federal government, which is now way more engaged in the issue of relocation than when Newtok started this process 20 years ago,” said Bronen. “A lot of advocacy was done by tribes to educate the federal government and Congress to this giantly complex issue that is now happening to several communities, right? That issue of community relocations.”
There are a number of other villages that want to relocate in the Y-K Delta. Newtok and Napakiak are already in the process. As of fall 2023, the shoreline was 73 feet from Napakiak’s school. The high school wing was knocked down already, and the principal’s office was filled with storage boxes in case staff had to evacuate quickly in a storm. At minimum, residents in Akiak, Chefornak and Hooper Bay have expressed interest to move too.
Bronen said Nunapitchuk was chosen to be a pilot since the village already had selected a relocation spot, and officials believe that it will be suitable for building infrastructure. It’s also on land the community already has jurisdiction over, so there won’t need to be land exchanges like there were in Newtok. Plus, it’s getting increasingly dangerous for residents.
Nunapitchuk local Morris Alexie is proud to say that the chosen relocation spot is on hard packed sand that should last a while. Alexie was the first of eight local tribal liaisons with Permafrost Pathways. He’s the main person dealing with Nunapitchuk’s relocation, and the middleman for the players involved.
Alexie makes an effort to be on the forefront. He knows the main players personally, talks first in front of officials, and makes sure to go to conferences in Washington, D.C., Anchorage and around the country to tell his community’s story. In an ideal world, he wants to have a new village in the next five years, because changes to his community are happening fast. He said that he needs policy to keep up.
“Nunap(itchuk), this relocation effort, will be making policies and guidelines for the U.S. government, which does not have any kind of steps or ways that they take to relocate. We will be teaching the government on Alaska’s relocation effort,” Alexie said.
There are a lot of other players involved, too many even for the main players to keep track of.
Bronen said that the Alaska Institute of Justice is hoping the federal government will use Nunapitchuk to start figuring out how agencies can collaborate with each other to fund the relocations. The institute is also working to simplify applications so that villages can fill out one application for various departments.
“We need to have a good model of how that can be done, because it doesn’t exist at this time,” Bronen said. “And then the work that we do is (to) help facilitate that coordination and collaboration. So we are working with different federal government agencies to understand what their capacity is to provide the support that Nunapitchuk needs right now.”
Bronen said that she hopes this collaboration will speed up the process, especially as more and more villages reach the breaking point for relocation.
“Newtok’s relocation has been happening for over 20 years. And communities like Nunapitchuk do not have 20 years for all of that collaboration to happen because of the environmental situation that they’re in,” Bronen said.
The wide-ranging Permafrost Pathways collaboration stems from a six-year grant. Permafrost Pathways leead Natali said that long-term, she hopes to empower the communities to be in charge.
“Really, with the project it’s like, ‘What can we do so that the communities can lead?’ And so that they can have the data, and own the data. And so that, you know, ideally, I would love to get us out of the picture,” said Natali. “Some of the work we will be doing with some of the communities and people who are interested is doing, like, our GIS training, so mapping, training on how to create maps. So it’s not us creating the maps. But here’s how you access these geospatial, you know, satellite data. And here’s the tool.”
To that end, Alexie started conducting water quality tests at the end of town. Last summer, he said that he found traces of arsenic and mercury or acid.
What happens next for Nunapitchuk
In fall 2023, the village of Nunapitchuk completed its permafrost vulnerability assessment. According to Alexie, it projected the relocation to cost $277 million.
Now the village and the Alaska Institute of Justice are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the main government agency that will approve moving the village to a new site, which is expected to take about a year. The first tasks are figuring out sites for a new barge landing and an airstrip to provide access to the new village.
In an earlier era, Alaska Natives in the region were always moving: from spring camp, to winter camp, to fall, to summer. They lived off what was plentiful that year, and would construct their shelters with materials in the environment around them.
Colonization introduced a settled way of life with heavy, costly and chemical-ridden infrastructure into a fragile ecosystem that’s getting more fragile every year. Now, to feel safe, the community has to move again. This time, it won’t be as easy to pick up and restart.