Impacts of Permafrost Thaw on Public Health
Prepared for the Nunapitchuk IRA Council by the
Alaska Institute for Justice on behalf of the Native Village of Nunapitchuk
● Located on the Yukon-Kuskokwim
● Approximate population of 680,
with 143 homes
● There are three governing bodies
in the community
The Native Village of Nunapitchuk is a federally recognized Tribe located in Southwestern Alaska.
The community is home to approximately 680 residents, the majority of whom are Indigenous people of the Central Yup’ik Culture. According to the 2020 US Census there were 143 homes in the community.
Nunapitchuk is located on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on the banks of the Johnson River. This area of the delta is low-lying and prone to multiple environmental threats including permafrost thaw, erosion, and storm surges.
Historically, permafrost provided a stable foundation for all crucial infrastructure. However, due to Arctic warming, this once permanently frozen ground is thawing.
Action must be taken to enable this community to stay within their traditional homelands Due to the anthropogenic climate crisis Nunapitchuk is facing an imminent and existential threat to safety and wellbeing. All infrastructure in Nunapitchuk is being impacted by permafrost thaw.
Washeteria: The community’s water system is near a breaking point. Mitigation
efforts have been made but the severity of permafrost thaw and related ground subsidence is beyond the capacity of the community to deal with. The repair and
improvement of the water system needs to be prioritized in future mitigation work.
Though improved water infrastructure is the most urgent need for the village, other hazardous conditions also exist and need to be addressed.
Boardwalks and Barge Landing: Permafrost thaw has made transportation to and within the community dangerous. It has increased the rate of erosion to the banks of the river creating hazards for the delivery of supplies. Thawing permafrost has deteriorated the boardwalk system in the village making transportation less reliable and more hazardous.
Electric Utilities: Power lines are being impacted by the degradation of permafrost, creating dangerous situations for community residents. The entire power system in the community needs to be assessed and repaired.
Fuel System: The tank farm in the community supplies fuel for both transportation and heating and is being destabilized by thawing permafrost. Failure of the tank
farm would cause catastrophic damage to the community and environment. It must be continuously monitored to assure the safety of the human and non-human
residents of the community.
● Is a crucial piece of infrastructure
serving as our village’s only source
of running water
● Permafrost thaw is impacting the
foundations of our facility
● In July 2022, facility was shut down
as a safety precaution
For years, residents of Nunapitchuk have been witnessing the sinking of the washeteria — a crucial piece of infrastructure that serves as the village’s only source
of running water — due to permafrost thawing beneath its foundation.
In addition to supplying drinking water, the washeteria provides water for cleaning dishes, flushing toilets, personal hygiene, and laundry. In July 2022, the washeteria was temporarily shut down as a safety precaution, leaving residents without running
water. The Alaska Village Safe Water program inspected the building and continues to monitor the situation. Stop-gap measures have since been taken and the facility is now running at limited capacity. The water plant operator, Raymond Alexie, said this was a foreseen problem due to the settling of the building, which has been noticeable for 3 to 5 years.
The washeteria, constructed in 1978, now must be replaced. Though a new facility is being built, due to the remote location of the village and its weather-dependent accessibility, it is estimated that the new facility may take to up two years to complete.
Mitigation actions taken by
The Native Village of Nunapitchuk
● Community based environmental monitoring of:
○ Permafrost thaw
○ Water quality
○ Soil quality
○ Storm impacts
● Continuous repair of damaged foundations
● Placement of Geotextiles for access to the landfill
● Propped up power lines
● Partnered with NGOs to gather data and create environmental
● Repair of access ways
● Repair of boat landing
● Repair of water access infrastructure
● Secured limited funding for environmental monitoring