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Climate Change Threatens Alaska Census Count


Now to Alaska, where some communities are on the frontlines of the impact of climate change. Warming temperatures and thawing permafrost are forcing some Alaska Native villagers to look for firmer ground on which to live. And that's also making it harder to get an accurate population count for the 2020 census in parts of the state. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has been traveling to some of these remote areas for this report.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Once a decade, the U.S. government's largest peacetime mobilization officially begins with a trek to the most northern state in the union.


WANG: Census Bureau officials crossed the tundra of southwest Alaska by bush plane last month to reach the fishing village of Toksook Bay, the first community in the country to be counted for the 2020 census.

JESSICA IMOTICHEY: You land on a strip of ice.

WANG: Jessica Imotichey coordinates the bureau's outreach to tribal governments in Alaska.

IMOTICHEY: The airport terminal is essentially - it's not even a building. It just has a bench in there. You know, it blocks to the wind. And then you go up into the actual village, typically by snow machine.


WANG: After each village is counted, census workers often hop back on a snow machine, or if you're in the lower 48, a snowmobile or sometimes into a dog sled to journey across miles of frozen ground and ice roads to reach the next village. Temperatures in Alaska, though, have been heating up twice as fast as the global average, making counting in some parts of the state more complicated.

ROMY CADIENTE: We've seen landmasses just disappear overnight. And we're talking a big chunk of land, about 20 feet or so.

WANG: Romy Cadiente is the relocation coordinator for a village northeast of Toksook Bay called Newtok. Many residents there have been forced out by erosion and rising waters that seep through floorboards and lead to black mold in homes.

CADIENTE: There are leaning telephone poles all over the village. Structures are beginning to fall from their foundation.

WANG: The 2010 census counted just over 350 people living in Newtok, and the community has used that number to get its share of an estimated more than $1 1/2 trillion a year in federal funding guided by census data. But last fall, a third of Newtok's residents relocated into new homes in Mertarvik, its replacement village that's on higher ground. And this year, the Census Bureau is planning to count the community as two villages with separate population counts. So I asked Romy Cadiente, what does that mean for how much funding the community receives over the next decade?

CADIENTE: That's a very good question and a very scary question. There's got to be a way for communities that experience these kinds of threats to have additional funding in the transitionary period.

ROBERT PITKA: Recent global warming has a lot of effect in coastal areas, rivers. And it's not just one village. It's in all the villages.

WANG: Back in Toksook Bay, tribal administrator Robert Pitka says climate change brings a particular challenge to Alaska Native villages that rely on funding tied to their census numbers.

What are you worried about over the next 10 years?

PITKA: Oh, I'm just worried that there may be lack of funding to fix all kinds of erosion that's occurring in many villages. It's indescribable.

WANG: For Diana Therchik, it was partly foreseeable. Therchik is the operations manager for the Toksook Bay Sub-Regional Clinic, and she's worried about the ice road other villages rely on to get to Toksook Bay's health clinic. In recent winters, it's sometimes been too warm to drive over a nearby river.

DIANA THERCHIK: It hasn't frozen over, and it's made it more difficult to get seen over here. So they rely on planes more.

WANG: Therchik says the rising temperatures remind her of what Yup'ik elders have long predicted. And she wonders if census workers, who often have to use ice roads to get around, may encounter a vastly different Alaska by the next count in 2030.

THERCHIK: The way things are going, maybe they won't have snow. Maybe they will not have winter. That's like so many years from now. And I just don't know.

WANG: Romy Cadiente says in Newtok, many residents are not waiting to see what else climate change brings.

CADIENTE: There are so many people that are scared about the weather, so a lot of people have been seeking shelter with their relatives all over the region. So you're going to see that census number drop a little bit.

WANG: Ten years from now, though, Cadiente wants to see Newtok's community reunited on solid ground in their new village of Mertarvik - population 350 by the 2030 census, he hopes, or maybe even higher. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.