Building climate change resilient houses for Alaskan Natives

Source(s)
Climate Adaption Platform

Mountain Village, Alaska, which accommodates 855 residents, are sinking due to thawing permafrost. Ninety per cent of people living in Yupik village are Native Americans.

They lived in these 1970s homes brought to the village during the trans-Alaska oil pipeline boom, making the country a petroleum state. 

The problem with these houses is that they were designed for warmer temperatures and not for Alaska’s subarctic climate. These houses are improperly insulated, burdening families with very high heating bills and prone to moulds that made respiratory illness endemic in Alaska, especially among indigenous children.

The permafrost is layers of frozen organic materials covering 80% of Alaska that are rapidly melting, speeding up the destruction of any structure built on it, including the pipelines.

In Alaska, 80% of its land consist of permafrost, or layers of organic materials.  Decades of permafrost thawing eroded the land and destroying houses and structures built on it – cracking windows, splitting floors, and making these houses impossible to live in, especially during sub-zero temperatures. 

These houses are also crowded with families. It is usual to see two or four families living under the same roof. 

These families would do anything to make these dilapidating houses liveable, supporting their foundation or covering the cracks with any available materials they could put their hands into – ATV drums, concrete slabs, wood cribbing, etc.

But it’s not only the residents of Mountain Village who are dealing with the dangers of permafrost melts.

Thirty villages face the decision of whether to stay or relocate as Alaska’s permafrost, coastlines, and sea ice are receding. 

In 2019, the Cold Climate Housing Research Centre (CCHRC) assisted the relocation of Newtok, a Yupik village of 400 people in southwest Alaska.

The Cold Climate Housing Research Centre (CCHRC), a part of the National Renewable Laboratory (NREL), is also designing house prototypes. The centre is a pioneering sustainable and climate-resilient circumpolar architecture that could withstand the increasing effects of climate change and protect residents against the harsh Alaskan climate. 

Aaron Cook, who leads the Sustainable Northern Communities Program at the CCHRC/NREL, says, “If we cannot predict what the climate is going to do, then all of our architecture should be adapted”.

According to the CCHRS website, they are working throughout the traditional territories of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska, respecting the First Alaskans for their ancestral and present land stewardship and place-based knowledge.

These houses are designed and constructed using indigenous wisdom and 21st-century technologies. These house designs are climate-resilient and sustainable, fit the Alaskan climate and the people’s culture.  

Seattle Times describes the CCHRS houses as:

“For the freezing winters, the house is equipped with an insulation-ventilation system that keeps heat in, moisture and dirty air out, and generally use 70% to 80% less fuel use than average homes. The adjustable foundation, normally used for things like temporary bridges, can shift up to 9 inches with the vulnerable permafrost underneath Mountain Village. Should the permafrost deteriorate beyond habitation, strong beams can be hooked up to a truck to move the house.”

CCHRS also adapted the design of these houses to match Mountain Village residents’ financial reality. Engineers of the research centre designed small prototypes housing for low-income families.

According to the article, some politicians who champion climate adaptation and rural native communities also support the expansion of oil drilling. 

The report highlights the importance of climate policy to align with climate adaptation to make CCHR’s work more meaningful and effective.

To know more about the challenges of Mountain Village residents and what CCHRS is doing to help them, read the entire article:

And to know more about what the CCHRS is doing and its projects, check out their website:

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