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Permafrost underlying many remote villages in Alaska is thawing and that's a problem


Many remote villages in Alaska sit on permafrost - ground that used to stay frozen year-round. It's right there in the name - permafrost. But as the atmosphere warms, it's thawing. For many Alaska Native communities, that threatens their ability to stay on land where their families have lived for generations. NPR's Nina Kravinsky reports.


WILSON TWITCHELL: (Non-English language spoken).


Bertha and Wilson Twitchell welcome us into their house in Kasigluk, Alaska - a village of around 500 people on the subarctic tundra in the remote western part of the state. Most residents, like the Twitchells, are Yup'ik - Alaska Native.

W TWITCHELL: Yeah. Have a seat at the table.

KRAVINSKY: Wilson Twitchell grew up in this small house, where he and Bertha are now raising their seven kids. Supplies hang from the rafters, and a pumpkin roll bakes in the oven. It's very cozy, but they won't be able to stay here much longer.

W TWITCHELL: So it's sinking, all right - sinking fast.

KRAVINSKY: He means the whole house is sinking. He points to the window.

W TWITCHELL: We used to be able to see people's heads walking here. Now we see the knees when they walk.

KRAVINSKY: The Twitchells' house sits above a layer of permafrost - a frozen mixture of ice, rock and dirt found all over this part of Alaska. As climate change warms the region, that permafrost is thawing. Here in Kasigluk, formerly solid land is now swampy.

W TWITCHELL: We try to jack up the house, but there's no solid. It's all - I don't know - turning into mush.

KRAVINSKY: It's not just the Twitchells' house. Step outside, and you see this whole area - half the village - is sinking. Water pools everywhere.

W TWITCHELL: All this water, man.

KRAVINSKY: Sam Berlin is our Yup'ik language interpreter. He grew up in Kasigluk, and he's shocked at the changes. Even the graveyard is sinking.

SAM BERLIN: Used to be a lot of graves here. Now it's all gone - swamp. You cannot walk in there, I don't think.

KRAVINSKY: Russian Orthodox crosses tilt at angles as they sink into the earth, their white paint chipping. Now the people of Kasigluk bury their dead on the other side of the river, where the ground is more solid. As soon as possible, the living will need to move there, too. But there's a huge obstacle - the cost. Kasigluk needs millions of dollars to build a bunch of new houses and a new road. Construction here in Alaska is really expensive, and most people in Kasigluk live below the poverty line. Officials say dozens of Alaska Native villages across the state face the same problem.

JOCELYN FENTON: We are experiencing widespread permafrost thaw, and that impacts buildings, roads, pipelines, the landscapes and Indigenous ways of life. So it is a critical issue that is here and now.

KRAVINSKY: Jocelyn Fenton is with the Denali Commission - a federal agency focused on Alaska infrastructure. A recent report found the state will need $80 million more a year to keep villages safe. Communities have been asking for help from the federal government for decades. And advocates say it's reached a crisis point. Jackie Schaeffer is with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. She says what funding does exist requires small communities to apply for separate grants from multiple federal agencies.

JACKIE SCHAEFFER: And so there's so many moving parts to these projects that it's overwhelming. And then you add those layers and barriers, and it really, in some cases, is simply impossible.

KRAVINSKY: Schaeffer helped write a new report that suggests a different approach. She says the federal government needs to create one unified pot of money to help Alaska's tribes deal with climate change, overseen by just one agency. It's not just about Alaska. Schaeffer says a successful system to help Alaska villages cope with climate impacts could become a model for the rest of the country.

SCHAEFFER: We could use this as an opportunity to put things in place that could be scaled up to the national level.

KRAVINSKY: A spokesperson for the White House says they're reviewing Schaeffer's report. Wilson Twitchell and his neighbors say it's not just their homes that are at stake. It's their Yup'ik culture and identity. If the Twitchell can't build a house across the river soon, they'll have to leave Kasigluk and the land where their family has lived for generations.

W TWITCHELL: What I would be leaving is, you know, the freedom to, you know, be inside the house, and in five minutes, you're already out in the wilderness. You know, as you can see, it's only, you know, 10, 15 steps to the boat.

KRAVINSKY: That's not just about convenience, he says. Fishing, hunting, picking berries here on this land is a way of life...

W TWITCHELL: You step out, and you take off. That part I would miss.

KRAVINSKY: ...Unless he can get to solid ground soon.

Nina Kravinsky, NPR News, Kasigluk, Alaska. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Nina Kravinsky