Saving the Little Tundra: Mitigating Flood Risks in the Village of Nunapitchuk

Twenty-two miles northwest of Bethel in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) delta resides Nunapitchuk; a small Alaskan village with a population of over 500 native Yupik residents. Developed less than 100 years ago, the majority of those who reside in Nunapitchuk are direct descendants of native settlers.

Nunapitchuk sits along the low gradient, tidally influenced Johnson River. Draining over 3,000 square miles of lakes, streams, and sloughs, the Johnson River system is comprised of the largest number of unnamed sloughs and lakes in the Kuskokwim region. Yupik for ‘little tundra’, Nunapitchuk is built atop permafrost, with an elevation of only 10 feet. The low-lying location of the village poses many issues, as the community has faced severe flooding and permafrost degradation over the past several years. The Alaska Denali Commission has identified Nunapitchuk as one of several villages at risk to natural hazards exacerbated by climate change.

The Effects of Climate Change on the Community

A part of the western transitional climate zone, Nunapitchuk is known for its long, cold winters and short, hot summers. Recently, the region has experienced an increase in snow and rainfall, resulting in sea level rise and backwatered rivers. As water levels continue to rise, flooding events have increased in frequency and intensity causing damage across the village.

Additionally, Nunapitchuk continues to face permafrost loss, turning the once frozen ground into marsh. The thawing of permafrost also poses a major threat to the environment by emitting greenhouse gases into the air. Permafrost degradation also has the potential to destroy infrastructure, as the melting ice causes the ground to contract and cave in leading to unstable roadways and infrastructure.

Looking for a Solution

When working with Alaskan native communities, Herrera takes a hands-on approach, spending time with locals to understand the history and changing landscape of the village. In July 2021, Herrera traveled to Nunapitchuk to help locals develop an approach to mitigate the effects of flooding and erosion. The team synthesized native stories with modern science to develop a uniquely integrated solution for the community.

When talking to local elders about the origins of Nunapitchuk, Herrera’s team learned that the village’s location was strongly influenced by the decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to place a school in the area.

This decision forced the quasi-nomadic Yupik people living in the area to settle in this location, despite hesitancy from elders at the time. The deeper understanding into the settler’s past and their flexibility to move the village to higher ground to avoid flooding, helped Herrera understand the motivation and need for the assessment. This information, along with Herrera’s research into the latest science of climate change in this remote area, will aid the team in identifying appropriate flood mitigation measures to protect the village against rising waters. Herrera looks forward to building a sustainable future for this community.