Erosion due to climate change force Yukon River communities to relocate their houses almost every year | Polarjournal
Scientists inspecting the riverbank near Huslia, ALaska, after a large erosion event. Photo: YRITWC
Scientists inspecting the riverbank near Huslia, Alaska, after a large erosion event. Photo: YRITWC

The eroding riverbank is unpredictable, and families are forced to move to other exposed areas to continue their subsistence farming. “I wish we had acted 10 years ago,” science advisor at local tribal council tells Polar Journal.

In the past ten years, the town of Huslia, Alaska, home to around 300 people, experienced severe problems with erosion. The town is located by a bend in the Koyukuk River, a tributary of the Yukon, and because of climate change, its banks have started to erode more often and more violently.

In one incident, around 9 meters of land disappeared overnight. It tore away the road to the town’s boat landing area and endangered several houses.  

“It was a shock to the community. They started to fear how much more land they would lose that year,” said Edda Mutter, Science Director at the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, who came to town a few days after the event.

“They were also dealing with time pressure because the next winter was coming. You can’t move a house very quickly, and when it is done you have to connect it to electricity, the sewage piping system, and the heating system. And at the same time, they have to harvest for the winter for their subsistence way of life,” she continued.  

“It was an existential fear,” Mutter told PolarJournal.

Erosion like this has happened historically in Yukon River communities like Huslia, but, according to Mutter, it has increased in the past 30 years, and even more so in the past ten. Almost every year now, some families in Huslia have to move their home.

These communities get by on subsistence harvesting (farming without a surplus), and depend on the river for food, transportation, and for some communities even as their drinking water source . This means they cannot just move their community into the mountains.  “The question becomes where to find that safe spot. It is not easy to predict what the river will do,” Edda Mutter said.

Climate change leads to erosion

The rapid increase in erosion in the Yukon River Watershed is caused by climate change. In Alaska, temperatures are rising two to three times faster than the global average, and this has a number of effects on the natural environment.

First of all, the ground is now melting during the summer in many areas that previously had permafrost. This leads to a rapid change in vegetation as trees can now have deeper roots and grow taller.  This, in turn, leads to increased risks of wildfires.

Second of all, the sea ice around Alaska’s coasts is declining and is becoming less stable. This affects the coastal communities in major ways but, due to higher winds and more frequent storms, it also affects inland areas like the Yukon River.

Third of all, the Yukon River Watershed’s unique geology, which led to the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s, is also affected. For instance, due to permafrost thawing, heavy metals such as mercury risk running into the river systems; again, affecting local ecosystems.

And then there is the increased risk of riverbank and coastal erosion. According to Mutter, factors such as the permafrost thawing, the increase in precipitation, and the increase of storm and wildfire events all contribute to this in different ways.

“The melting permafrost and warmer water temperatures lead to erosion of some riverbanks. But we now also have more sediment coming into the river systems. This can lead to shallower water in some places and changes to the flow of the river,” Edda Mutter added.

Issues throughout the watershed

It is not just Huslia on the Koyukuk River where erosion is an issue. The entire Yukon River Basin is 850.000 square kilometers large, more than twice the size of Germany, and is home to around 126.000 people.

The Yukon River Basin is 850.000 square kilometres large and twice the size of California, as well as twice the size of Germanty. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The Yukon River Basin is 850.000 square kilometres large and is more than twice the size of California, as well as more than twice the size of Germany. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, the indigenous-led NGO where Edda Mutter is the Science Director, represents 74 tribes throughout the watershed, and, according to her, communities are experiencing erosion problems in almost the entire area.

The NGO is collaborating with the California Institute of Technology, the University of Anchorage Alaska, the Univeristy of Southern California and three Alaska Tribes on a project to better understand their local issues. Mutter mentions communities like Kivalina, Shishmaref, Kotlik, and Alakanuk as areas that are severely impacted. And the impacts are multiple.

“Houses and infrastructure are threatened. Water supply is an issue in some places. And Alaska’s land ownership means that it can also be legally difficult to move houses out of danger areas,” Edda Mutter said.

Previously, the problem of river erosion inland has tended to be overlooked, as coastal communities are experiencing more immediate problems with receding sea ice and increase of storm surges. However, Mutter believes that recently the issue of erosion throughout the watershed is moving higher on the agenda in local politics, in part due to the collapse of Alaskan salmon populations.

“Coastal communities have been more severely impacted, and communities have been forced to consider relocating their entire towns. The erosion along the river has been slower, but is becoming still more impactful,” Mutter said.

“Should have acted 10 years ago”

In spite of all the issues, Edda Mutter is hopeful that most communities will be able to remain in their ancestral lands.

“There has always been natural erosion in the Arctic region and historically communities had to move, so Alaska communities are resilient. The problem is the rapidly increasing rate of change; the fact that whole little islands of the riverbanks are disappearing at once. But as we elevate this issue, I think we will be able to develop strategies to address it better,” she said.

Alaska and the world’s polar regions are experiencing much faster changes to the climate than the rest of the world. As a consequence, these regions can function as the proverbial canary in the coal mine; as a sign of what is to come.

And when asked to give one advice to the world from an area already experiencing severe climate change impacts, Edda Mutter is clear:

“You should be more proactive,” she said.

“That is really the lesson learned. We cannot wait until we face a disaster. Maybe that is human nature; that we only become active when we face a big shock or a disaster. But my advice would be to be more proactive and to prepare for the worst.”

If in the past, more action had been taken in the Yukon River watershed, communities like Huslia would have been better prepared for the erosion; it would not have to scramble to move houses and infrastructure before the coming of winter. 

“I wish we had acted 10 years ago when we had the first signs. Then we would not be where we are at this point,” Edda Mutter said.

Ole Ellekrog, PolarJournal

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