Welcome to the April 2016 issue of the Natural Hazards Observer, dedicated to climate change and indigenous people in the United States.

Indigenous communities in our country—from Native Americans in Louisiana and Pacific Islanders in Hawaii to Alaska Natives in the Arctic Circle—face a myriad of climate change impacts that threaten to undermine their livelihoods, identity, and culture. Key impacts include drought and decreased water availability, thinning arctic sea ice, thawing permafrost, erosion, and floods. In turn, these impacts can lead to food insecurity1 and, in some cases such as Newtok Alaska and Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana, it even leads to the need to relocate.

These impacts are compounded by persistent socio-economical issues, such a lack of health and community services, insufficient infrastructure, transportation and education; high unemployment; and substandard and inadequate housing.

According to Bennett et al. (2014), the overwhelming driver of these adverse social indicators is pervasive poverty. The average poverty rate on reservations and in Native communities is 28.4 percent (compared to 15.3 nationally). This widespread poverty is responsible for a number of other problems, such as a high homeless rate on reservations and a lack of electricity, running water, and modern telecommunications (Internet access and phone service).2

In their chapter, which was published in the National Climate Assessment report “Our Changing Climate,” Bennett et al. also point out that native populations are especially vulnerable to climate change because “their physical, mental, intellectual, social, and cultural well-being is traditionally tied to a close relationship with the natural world, and because of their dependence on the land and resources for basic needs such as medicine, shelter, and food.”

This close relationship, however, also works in the favor of tribal communities. Traditional knowledge of their environment and natural resources can inform adaptation and sustainability strategies.

In the past decade, Western scientists have begun to value the complementary role of traditional knowledge in climate change assessments. The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report recognized that “traditional knowledge of local communities represents an important, yet currently largely under-used resource for climate change, impacts, adaptation and vulnerability assessment” (IPCC, 2007).

Since then, there have been some important initiatives where scientists have worked closely with indigenous communities and merged traditional knowledge and western-based approaches to address climate change and related impacts. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, for example, works with a network of local environmental observers and topic experts who apply traditional knowledge, western science, and technology to the documentation of environmental and ecological changes in their communities. The purpose of this network is to increase understanding about their changing communities so they can adapt in a timely manner (Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, 2016).

Two articles, one written by Karletta Chief and Alison Meadow from the University of Arizona and another by Heather Lazrus, Julie Maldonado, and Bob Gough from the The Rising Voices program, discuss a number of other successful collaborations between scientists and indigenous communities. According to the authors, trust and respect are the keys to the success of these cross-cultural collaborations.

To establish the necessary trust and mutual respect, indigenous scientists, such as Karletta Chief of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, can play important roles. Unfortunately, as discussed by Lazrus et al., there is an absence of indigenous leaders in atmospheric sciences, decision-making, and policy efforts. To address this demographic deficit, Rising Voices has called on 2015 UN Climate Summit participants to create a Climate Change Service Corps to support youth from indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds to work with communities and with scientists to find climate solutions. Capacity would be enhanced through mentorships, scholarships, and internships with federal agencies.

Two other articles in this issue discuss some of the hurdles that tribal communities are faced with in disaster planning, mitigation, and response. Lucy Carter and Lori Peek assess the levels of mitigation planning and engagement among Native American and Alaska Native tribes. My article about Newtok, an Alaskan town that is on the verge of being swept away, explores the village relocation efforts in the past two decades and the many obstacles to obtaining funding for these efforts.

On another note, author Stacia Ryder looks at technological accidents and environmental hazards through a social justice lens. She analyzes the uneven attention and level of government response, accountability, and effectiveness in communities—indigenous and non-indigenous—harmed by disasters. These include lead contamination in Flint and the Gold King mine spill on the San Juan River, which contaminated the Navajo Nation’s primary irrigation source with arsenic, cadmium, and lead.

This issue’s articles show that State and federal government agencies continue to struggle to identify and respond to the immediate needs of vulnerable communities— such as Newtok, Navajo Nation, Isle de Jean Charles, and Flint—threatened or struck by climate induced or other man-made disasters. While the U.S. government has made important strides to working with such communities, there is still room for improvement.


Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. 2016. Leo Network http://anthc.org/what-we-do/community-environment-and-health/leo-network/ (accessed on April 26, 2016).

Bennett, T. M. B., N. G. Maynard, P. Cochran, R. Gough, K. Lynn, J. Maldonado, G. Voggesser, S. Wotkyns, and K. Cozzetto. 2014: Ch. 12: Indigenous Peoples, Lands, and Resources. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 297-317. doi:10.7930/J09G5JR1.

IPPC. 2007. Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. IPPC Fourth Assessment Report 2007. https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/ch2s2-2-4.html (accessed on April 27, 2016).

  1. For example many Alaska Natives rely on traditional, permafrost-encapsulated storage cellars. With the thawing permafrost, it has been difficult to keep meat such as moose, whale, walrus and seal frozen and as a result there has been an increase of food borne diseases (http://www7.nau.edu/itep/main/tcc/Tribes/ak_swi) 

  2. The homeless rate is more than 10 percent on reservations, more than 14 percent of reservation homes are without power (ten times the average), there is a lack of running water in one-fifth of all reservation homes and fewer than 50 percent of homes have a phone service and only 10 percent of residents have internet access.