Climate effects in coastal and rural Alaska: two initiatives

coastal erosion
Erosion of the coastal bluff on Barter Island, 2011. USGS photo.

Climate impacts in Alaska and around the United States are making news headlines every day. As time ticks on, impacts increase; economic and human costs rack up. How can an individual community position itself before a disaster strikes to decide whether to relocate, or stay and mitigate expected damage. What information do they need to make that kind of a decision?

Scientists have developed sophisticated modeling techniques that can help forecast when a village or a geographic area like Norton Sound might be hit by storm surges and flooding. The next step is making that forecast available at the local level to facilitate decision-making.

Tom Ravens, a UAA civil engineering professor, began his career studying erosion on the Gulf Coast. The lure of Alaska pulled him north and coastal erosion modeling became his emphasis here. Over the last several years, he and graduate students, working with agencies like the USGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, have worked to develop forecast models. When will a storm hit; how large will the wave surge be; how deep will flood waters go?

Now, Ravens and a colleague, economist and social scientist Tobias Schworer of the Institute for Economic and Social Research, will lead a National Science Foundation-funded effort with the goal of bringing community members, economists, social scientists and forecast modelers together to address climate change pressures.

If relocation is a community desire, how much would it cost? If mitigations are possible to remain in place, what would they be and how much would they cost?  “We’ve spent time developing these models and sophisticating forecasting tools,” said Ravens. “Now we want to use them to help people.”

That is one new initiative underway. Another is a Denali Commission’s effort to update an existing Army Corps of Engineers study on village vulnerabilities. Don Antrobus, a program manager with the commission, explains that the original study from 2009 looked primarily at erosion. Now, melting permafrost and flooding are new realities. So the commission, with help from UAF scientists and the Corps, will work to update their risk assessment. More than 30 villages are impacted.

Join us on Hometown Alaska to learn more about how Alaska communities can position themselves for tough decisions ahead.



HOST: Kathleen McCoy


  • Tom Ravens, UAA civil engineering professor focused on coastal erosion forecast models
  • Tobias Schworer, ISER economist and researcher
  • Joel Neimeyer, federal co-chair, Denali Commission



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