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Excerpted From: E. Barrett Ristroph, Avoiding Maladaptations to Flooding and Erosion: A Case Study of Alaska Native Villages, 24 Ocean and Coastal Law Journal 110 (June 2019)(107 Footnotes) (Full Document)


EBarrettRistrophFlooding is the most common disaster in the State of Alaska, the United States, and perhaps around the world. Flooding and erosion are particularly significant to many Alaska Native Villages ([Alaska Native Villages]), which are nationally recognized tribes as well as settlements, for several reasons. First, a large percentage of these communities face significant flooding, erosion, and other climate-related impacts to their traditional lifeways, and some are imminently threatened and in need of relocation. This vulnerability relates to their location in flood and erosion-prone areas along shorelines. Historically, [Alaska Native Villages] avoided flooding catastrophes through seasonal migration, but colonization (including laws regarding school attendance) forced villages into settlements that may not have been suitable for permanent habitation.

Second, the remote location of [Alaska Native Villages] limits the mobilization of large infrastructure and Western goods and services, and can impede post-disaster recovery. Further, [Alaska Native Villages] are often small and impoverished communities without their own tax base. They have limited capacity to build new infrastructure and must rely on external funding and consultants. Finally, [Alaska Native Villages] represent unique cultures with subsistence lifeways and distinct ways of understanding the world. The idea of moving away from an [Aaskan Native Village] (or even moving back from the shoreline) is undesirable to many [Aaskan Native Village] residents. While a few [Alaska Native Villages] are currently seeking to relocate, many others are attempting to adapt in place.

In this article, I offer a perspective on how [Alaska Native Villages] are adapting in place to flooding and erosion, which adaptations might be maladaptations, and what might be done to facilitate adaptation short of relocating entire communities. Specifically, I consider how federal legislation might be adjusted to better respond to the unique situation of [Alaska Native Villages], and how, even without legislative change, agencies can work to avoid maladaptations. This article is based on dissertation research aiming to understand how [Alaska Native Villages] are adapting to climate change and responding to disasters, and how laws and planning processes help or hinder. My research involved multiple approaches, each of which I cover in more detail in a separate article.

The first approach was to review literature related to studies of adaptation, studies of Alaska Natives, and commentary on laws.

The second approach was to review the relevant laws themselves.

The third approach involved 153 interviews and interview-like conversations with [Aaskan Native Village] residents as well as those outside [Alaska Native Villages] who make or influence laws that affect [Alaska Native Villages]. I specifically sought participants from [Alaska Native Villages] that had national disaster declarations due to flooding within recent decades. Of the fifty-nine [Alaska Native Villages] from which my participants were drawn, forty-two had been included in a state disaster declaration pertaining to a climate-related disaster during the study period, and thirty-six of these had been part of a national disaster declaration. Eighteen participants from [Alaska Native Villages] that had experienced disaster declarations described these events.

The fourth approach was to analyze community plans relevant to the fifty-nine [Alaska Native Villages] from which I selected participants, including hazard mitigation plans required by the Federal Emergency and Management Agency (FEMA) for certain kinds of disaster assistance and plans related to economic development and land use. I used qualitative content analysis to identify major adaptation actions, relevant laws and agencies, facilitators, barriers, recommendations for change, and other themes that arose from interviews and those conversations that covered interview questions, as well as in community plans.

Research was authorized by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Hawaii, and ethical considerations required keeping confidential the identity of research participants. For this reason, names of participants and [Alaska Native Villages] are generally not mentioned in this article.

Section II contains a literature review of “protect in place” adaptation strategies relevant to [Alaska Native Villages]. It summarizes national laws and institutions relevant to flooding and erosion outside the context of national disaster declarations, and it explains how [Alaska Native Villages] are left out of these laws and institutions. Section III highlights my findings on the flooding and erosion that [Alaska Native Villages] are experiencing, how they are adapting, obstacles to carrying out adaptation actions, and the problems associated with hard armoring (a key adaptation measure for coastal [Alaska Native Villages]). Section IV suggests measures to better respond to flooding and erosion in a manner that allows [Alaska Native Villages] to avoid relocation. These measures may also be relevant to other small, rural, and/or indigenous communities in climate-vulnerable locations.


While [Alaska Native Villages] as well as many other communities want to stay in place and avoid retreat, there is a gap between [Alaska Native Villages] and federal institutions in terms of the adaptation strategies that each desire and are able to carry out. Small, rural communities like [Alaska Native Villages] lack the capacity and jurisdiction to implement large scale projects to avoid flooding and erosion. In many cases, [Alaska Native Villages] do not even have flood maps. Federal agencies (and to a lesser extent, state agencies) can provide these resources, but it is difficult for most [Alaska Native Villages] and other small, rural communities to obtain them without a disaster declaration or capacity to navigate complex funding opportunities. When [Alaska Native Villages] do get infrastructure to control flooding and erosion, it is often ineffective due to poor understanding of local conditions. But given the difficulty of obtaining assistance in the first place, [Alaska Native Villages] may be reticent to complain about it.

The result is a reactive, potentially maladaptive approach to controlling flooding and erosion. There is a need for a better partnership between [Alaska Native Villages] and external entities so that [Alaska Native Villages] can more readily obtain the support they need and have a stronger voice in how this support is carried out. This conclusion applies not only to [Alaska Native Villages], but also to other small, rural, and place-based communities that will require adaptation assistance. As more and more communities compete for adaptation federal and state assistance, it is important not only that vulnerable communities get needed assistance, but that limited funding is spent on effective adaptation measures.

J.D. Tulane Law School, New Orleans, Louisiana; Ph.D. University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii; Ristroph Law, Planning, and Research, Fairbanks, Alaska, United States.