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Thawing permafrost threatens Alaska's rural villages. And time is running out

Bertha and Wilson Twitchell stand outside their home in Kasigluk, Alaska. Wilson grew up here. He drew an image of what the land looked like when he was young: Grass and dry land surrounded the house, stretching at least 80 feet to the riverbank, where he remembers playing with toy boats. Now, when the water is particularly high, the house is nearly an island.
Katie Basile for NPR
Bertha and Wilson Twitchell stand outside their home in Kasigluk, Alaska. Wilson grew up here. He drew an image of what the land looked like when he was young: Grass and dry land surrounded the house, stretching at least 80 feet to the riverbank, where he remembers playing with toy boats. Now, when the water is particularly high, the house is nearly an island.

Updated May 14, 2024 at 06:49 AM ET

Wilson Twitchell's house is sinking.

Twitchell and his wife, Bertha, are raising seven children in their small home in Kasigluk, a Yup'ik village of about 450 people in Southwest Alaska. These days, the little wooden house looks a bit like a giant picked it up and tossed it haphazardly back onto the tundra. One side is so sunken into the wet, marshy ground that when neighbors walk past the kitchen window, all the Twitchells can see are their knees.

"We try to jack up the house, but there's no solid," Twitchell said, sitting in his cozy kitchen, where supplies hang from the rafters and a pumpkin roll bakes in the oven. "Everything is turning into mush."

Bertha Twitchell tends to salmon drying at her family's fish camp near Kasigluk. The Twitchells are Yup'ik, and maintaining their subsistence lifestyle is imperative as they consider where they might move. In the nearby town of Bethel, "it's still easy to go out and just go fishing and hunting," Wilson said. "In Anchorage, you have to drive miles and miles before you get to do that."
/ Katie Basile for NPR
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Katie Basile for NPR
Bertha Twitchell tends to salmon drying at her family's fish camp near Kasigluk. The Twitchells are Yup'ik, and maintaining their subsistence lifestyle is imperative as they consider where they might move. In the nearby town of Bethel, "it's still easy to go out and just go fishing and hunting," Wilson said. "In Anchorage, you have to drive miles and miles before you get to do that."

Even as it sinks, Twitchell loves this house. It's where he grew up. And he loves this village. Kasigluk sits in the heart of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a vast mosaic of lakes and rivers that spreads across the tundra and nurtures the food that is central to life in the village: salmon, whitefish, moose, and wild berries.

But the Twitchells aren't sure how much longer this house will be standing. Beneath the village, a layer of permafrost, once frozen year-round, has begun to thaw. Formerly solid ground has turned swampy. The local river is eroding its banks and encroaching on nearby homes.

"It's a losing battle," Wilson Twitchell said. "You can definitely see that the water is rising, the land is getting smaller."

Soon his family will have to move. And it's not clear where they will go.

Like the Twitchells, families in Alaska Native communities across the state are in a race against time. Human-caused climate change is warming the region and thawing the frozen mixture of ice, rock and dirt that underlies much of the landscape. That's undermining everything from homes and schools to water and sanitation systems.

Alaska Native communities have been raising the alarm for years, warning that thawing permafrost and erosion threaten their ability to stay on the land where their families have lived for generations. Now, officials say, the issue has reached a breaking point.

"We are experiencing widespread permafrost thaw, and that impacts buildings, roads, pipelines, the landscapes and Indigenous ways of life," said Jocelyn Fenton, director of programs with the Denali Commission, a federal agency responsible for some Alaska infrastructure.

Wilson, Bertha and their daughter Angela in the kitchen at their home in Kasigluk, Alaska. This year, for the first time, Wilson and Bertha said they can sometimes hear water hitting the outside corner of the house. Erosion, permafrost thaw and flooding have eaten away at the land and caused the foundation of the home to sink.
/ Katie Basile for NPR
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Katie Basile for NPR
Wilson, Bertha and their daughter Angela in the kitchen at their home in Kasigluk, Alaska. This year, for the first time, Wilson and Bertha said they can sometimes hear water hitting the outside corner of the house. Erosion, permafrost thaw and flooding have eaten away at the land and caused the foundation of the home to sink.

"It is a critical issue that is here now."

A call for a new approach

Local officials and advocates say the federal government isn't doing enough to help, and it's time for a new approach.

A new report from a major nonprofit and the state of Alaska calls for an overhaul in how the federal government helps tribal communities that need to relocate some or all of their members because of climate change.

Funding to assist Alaska Native villages dealing with climate impacts has increased in recent years. But it's still far from enough — and the funding mechanisms can be too fragmented for small communities to access, said Jackie Qataliña Schaeffer, director of climate initiatives at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which released the report.

The cemetery in Akiuk is no longer safe to walk in or maintain due to sinkholes and unstable ground. The community now lays its members to rest in a new cemetery in Akula (right). Soon, the living will need to move across the river, too.
/ Katie Basile for NPR
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Katie Basile for NPR
The cemetery in Akiuk is no longer safe to walk in or maintain due to sinkholes and unstable ground. The community now lays its members to rest in a new cemetery in Akula (right). Soon, the living will need to move across the river, too.

The report estimates Alaska villages will need $80 million more per year over the next decade to keep their residents, like the Twitchells, safe.

To get help, villages often have to apply for separate federal programs to fund housing, roads, or sanitation. They end up competing with each other for the same funding opportunities. And in small communities, limited staffing makes it challenging to apply to a laundry list of federal grants.

Susanna Isaac stands on an old dock in Akiuk, which connects to the community's boardwalks. "We can't even walk off them or we will sink. It's too swampy," she said. It wasn't like that when she was growing up. "There used to be a path of mud, hard mud, and we'd walk back and forth to houses," Isaac said, sketching memories of how the land has changed over time in Kasigluk.
/ Katie Basile for NPR
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Katie Basile for NPR
Susanna Isaac stands on an old dock in Akiuk, which connects to the community's boardwalks. "We can't even walk off them or we will sink. It's too swampy," she said. It wasn't like that when she was growing up. "There used to be a path of mud, hard mud, and we'd walk back and forth to houses," Isaac said, sketching memories of how the land has changed over time in Kasigluk.

"There's so many moving parts to these projects that it's overwhelming," Schaeffer said. "Then you add those layers and barriers, and it really, in some cases, is simply impossible."

Rather than disparate pools of funds at separate agencies, the report calls on the federal government to create a unified pot of money — overseen by just one agency.

"The funding process just doesn't fit rural Alaska," Schaeffer said.

A White House spokesperson told NPR the Biden administration is reviewing the report and its recommendations.

A tundra island near Kasigluk erodes, exposing thawing permafrost. Two months after this photo was taken, the opening collapsed completely.
/ Katie Basile for NPR
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Katie Basile for NPR
A tundra island near Kasigluk erodes, exposing thawing permafrost. Two months after this photo was taken, the opening collapsed completely.

In 2022, the administration launched a new effort to help tribal communities threatened by climate change to plan relocation efforts. Several Alaska communities have received funding through that and other programs, much of it made available through recent legislation passed by Congress, including the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. But dozens of other villages, including Kasigluk, haven't received such funding.

Crossing the river

The simplest solution for the Twitchell family would be to move across the river.

The Johnson River runs through Kasigluk, dividing it into two, even smaller, villages. The Twitchells live on one side of the river, called Akiuk. Across the river is Akula, home to the tribal office and a tiny airstrip. The deteriorating permafrost isn't evenly distributed beneath the landscape, which means some areas, like Akiuk, are thawing faster. Akula remains more stable — at least for now.

Nearly everyone in Kasigluk agrees that the best solution is for the families on the Akiuk side to move across the river to Akula. The question is how to pay for it — especially in a village, and region, where much of the community lives below the poverty line.

Tribal administrator Nickefer Kassel and the traditional council have spent years working on a way to get residents to the safer side of the river. But they're constantly struggling with the complicated process, he said, running up against a lack of funds and tangles with red tape.

<strong>Left:</strong> Old Kasigluk, or Akiuk, as seen from the air. Community members are losing land in Akiuk and hope to relocate across the river to new Kasigluk, or Akula. <strong>Right:</strong> Nickefer Kassel, Kasigluk Tribal Administrator.
/ Katie Basile for NPR
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Katie Basile for NPR
Left: Old Kasigluk, or Akiuk, as seen from the air. Community members are losing land in Akiuk and hope to relocate across the river to new Kasigluk, or Akula. Right: Nickefer Kassel, Kasigluk Tribal Administrator.

"It's pretty stressing," Kassel said. "At times it feels like everything is in a stall. It's frustrating."

For most people, moving across the river would mean building a new house. Like much of rural Alaska, Kasigluk has a severe housing shortage, and most of the threatened homes have deteriorated too much to relocate. But building in rural Alaska is extremely expensive. There are no roads connecting Kasigluk to the nearest town. The community relies on planes and snowmobiles to travel across the tundra in winter, or boats in summer. Most supplies and construction crews have to come by plane or barge.

Villages like Kasigluk can try to piece together money from federal grants, but advocates say there isn't enough available. The money that does exist is tricky for local officials to find and apply for — especially for a small village without a planning department.

Agnes Berlin at home on the Akiuk side of Kasigluk, Oct. 18, 2023. Berlin, who is in her late 70s, said she dreamed once there were orange and apple trees growing on the tundra. It's something her elders told her would happen one day — as people strayed from tradition, the winters would warm.
/ Katie Basile for NPR
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Katie Basile for NPR
Agnes Berlin at home on the Akiuk side of Kasigluk, Oct. 18, 2023. Berlin, who is in her late 70s, said she dreamed once there were orange and apple trees growing on the tundra. It's something her elders told her would happen one day — as people strayed from tradition, the winters would warm.

"It's hard for even the [federal] agencies to know exactly what funding is out there," Fenton said.

This isn't a new issue in Alaska.

More than two decades ago, in a2003 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned that the majority of Alaska Native villages were affected by flooding and erosion. But very few qualified for federal aid to deal with those issues, the report said.

How the federal government navigates this issue in Alaska could inform how it helps tribes and other communities confronting similar issues in the rest of the country, Fenton and Schaeffer said.

Communities in Washington state, Louisiana and South Carolina are already coping with rising sea levels.

"We could learn a lot from these small communities when we're looking at sea level rise and other issues in the Lower 48 states," Fenton said.

'That part of it I would miss'

In Kasigluk, residents say they want to stay as close as possible to where they live now.

Access to the land is central to the thriving Yup'ik language and culture that surrounds everything here.

At the Akiuk school, which is also at risk from deteriorating permafrost, a teacher beats a drum as children of all ages practice a traditional form of dance, or yuraq. This kind of dancing was discouraged, and even sometimes banned, by missionaries in this area in the early 20th century. But now, students wave their arms and chant the Yup'ik words fluently.

The dance is part of the culture Wilson Twitchell says he and his family would risk losing if he is forced to leave Kasigluk.

But he may not have a choice, if the water overtakes his home before the village can build more housing across the river. Twitchell says he would most likely move to Bethel, the closest city, or even to Anchorage, 400 miles away.

Moving would come at a cost — and not just a financial one. Hunting and fishing on this land are a central part of Yup'ik culture, he says.

"What I would be leaving is the freedom to be inside the house, and in five minutes you're already out in the wilderness," Twitchell said. He pointed to his family's boat, just a few steps away.

The Twitchell family returns home to Kasigluk after a boat ride on July 11, 2023. Their house (left) sinks lower every year due to thawing permafrost.
/ Katie Basile for NPR
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Katie Basile for NPR
The Twitchell family returns home to Kasigluk after a boat ride on July 11, 2023. Their house (left) sinks lower every year due to thawing permafrost.

"You step out and you take off," he said. "That part of it I would miss."

Photojournalist Katie Basile and KYUK host Sam Berlin contributed to this story. Edited by Rachel Waldholz.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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