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Climate Change in Alaska and Hawaii: Roadmaps for Federal Adaptation Policies

Scientists for Impacts of Climate Change on the Eco-Systems and Chemistry of the Arctic Pacific Environment (ICESCAPE) conduct research on Arctic sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska, July 4, 2010. (Photo: NASA/Kathryn Hansen)

Alaska and Hawaii, the newest states of the United States, represent some of its most extreme climates: Alaska in the remote Arctic and Hawaii in the tropics. Both are being affected by the increasing concentration of heat-absorbing greenhouse gases as the steady cold of Alaska and the warmth of Hawaii represent delicate ecosystems whose balance can be radically affected by subtle shifts in climate.

Average temperatures in the Arctic are warming about twice as fast as the global average, while Hawaii's surface temperatures are increasing at half the global average, although this varies by elevation (temperatures at higher elevations are above the global average). The disparate effects taking place on these states offer us a window into adaptation policies that could benefit the United States as a whole.


The stable cold of the Arctic plays an important role in balancing the overall energy of the earth. Its ice reflects most of the sun's rays back to space, while its subsurface provides the cold, saline-rich waters that help drive ocean circulation patterns.

The overall cooling effect, however, is being compromised by global warming. Glaciers are melting, and the newly exposed water absorbs more heat, increasing the amount of warm air over the pole. This warm air, in turn, is changing atmospheric wind patterns, disrupting the normally tight loop of the polar vortex and allowing cold Arctic air to spill south. Research suggests this “warm Arctic/cold continents” pattern was a large factor in the heavy snows experienced in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States, in the winters of 2009 and 2010, aggravated by moisture from El Niño.

While changes in the Arctic are having a marked effect on other parts of the globe, its largest effects have arguably been on the people of the Arctic, particularly indigenous communities that depend on the land for their daily needs. That land is changing around them. Air temperatures and water temperatures are steadily increasing, and seasonal sea ice is retreating. This is making traveling on ice more dangerous and the migrations of mammals and fish less predictable. The traditional knowledge that has sustained them for millennia is becoming more and more at odds with the transforming landscape.

Some communities are also facing the eventual loss of their entire homeland. This includes Kivalina, an Alaska Native village of about 427 people perched on a thin strip of land between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina Lagoon. Residents trace their ancestry to the area back thousands of years to some of the first migrations into the Americas. The people originally used Kivalina as a seasonal hunting ground, but were legally and culturally encouraged by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs and Christian missionaries in the early 1900's to settle there and enroll their children in school.

Part of this new settlement depended on the formation of sea ice in early fall, hardening the island and buffering it against storms. With warming Arctic temperatures, that ice now forms as late as November or even December, leaving the shoreline exposed and vulnerable for longer periods of time. Lack of ice means the storms are growing stronger as well, as winds are traveling over the open sea for longer periods, building up more energy that is transferred to the water, creating larger waves when they hit the shore.

In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 2003 report stating that the village needed to be relocated immediately due to storm erosion from climate change, a finding backed by a 2006 Army Corps of Engineers report, which stated that Kivalina would be lost to erosion in 10 to 15 years.

The need to relocate was not news to Kivalina, who had voted to relocate in 1992. The problem? There is no formal relocation policy in place in the United States and no government agency tasked with relocation.

Policies around disaster management are primarily structured around helping people strengthen their existing settlements, not move to new ones. Most disaster assistance and funds are available only after a disaster occurs and a disaster declaration is made. This would be too late for a village requiring relocation from steady and sometimes rapid erosion. Disaster mitigation policies, meanwhile, are limited, and have been whittled down since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was put under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after the attacks of September 11, 2001, with DHS's emphasis on counterterrorism activities and top-down control over bottom-up community resiliency against all emergencies.

Lack of policies have put the people of Kivalina in danger. In 2004, a storm took away a chunk of shoreline, leaving some residents with the sea suddenly at their doorstep. That storm was followed by a series of other storms, swallowing as much as 70 feet of land in one downpour and forcing the people to build makeshift seawalls out of whatever materials were available. They have had seawalls fail on them, and had to engage in a dangerous evacuation via all-terrain vehicles – dangerous because there are few places for the people to actually go.

In the meantime, government workers have been doing what they can within their prescribed boundaries. This includes, for example, a more formal rock revetment initiated by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2007 to help protect the southern end of the island from destabilizing.

Relocation remains necessary, however, but no agency is authorized to move Kivalina or other Alaska Native villages requiring relocation. This means that piecing together the relocation of the entire community has fallen largely on the people of Kivalina, and the process has advanced little since they put relocation to a vote nearly two decades ago. The need for a relocation policy was laid out in a 2009 GAO report, aptly titled, “Alaska Native Villages: Limited Progress Has Been Made on Relocating Villages Threatened by Flooding and Erosion.”

The report suggested designation of a lead government agency to help communities that face displacement and need to be relocated. Arguably, such agency designation is important for the United States as a whole, so that no community is faced with having nowhere to go and no formal process or policy in place to assist them.


Hawaii consists of eight large islands and over one hundred islets in the central Pacific, stretching more than 1,500 miles. While the Arctic helps balance the energy budget of the earth, the tropics offer a laboratory of rich biodiversity fed by constant sunshine and carbon.

This is particularly true of Hawaii, where most of its native plants and animals evolved in isolation and can be found nowhere else: 90 percent of Hawaii's native plants are found only in the islands, often confined to a single mountain or valley. Much of the flowers and fruits associated in the popular imagination with Hawaii actually arrived later, through people and sailing vessels, and many are considered invasive in the sense that they can overtake an area, crowd out other species, and transform entire ecosystems.

Evidence suggests the chain of Hawaiian Islands were created by the movement of the Pacific Plate over a hot spot, with magma from the earth's core breaking through the plate to erupt onto the seafloor. An active underwater seamount forms and grows with more eruptions until emerging above sea level as an island volcano. Continuing plate movement carries the newly formed island beyond the hotspot and the volcano goes extinct, while a new section moves over the hotspot and another volcano island begins to form.

The islands grow progressively older and more eroded the farther they are from the hotspot: Kauai in the west contains rocks estimated at 5.5 million years, while the oldest exposed rocks on the island of Hawaii (also commonly known as the Big Island) in the east date back less than 0.7 million years, with new volcanic rock still being formed.

Much of the islands therefore fluctuate between low-lying elevations and steep, mountainous terrains, which have interacted with winds and precipitation to create a wide variety of mini-climates. The native plants and animals of Hawaii – initially brought to the island by wind, water, birds and insects – evolved to create one of the most biodiverse regions in the United States. Yet that diversity is at risk: over a third of all endangered plant species in the United States are in Hawaii.

Risks include invasive species, land use changes such as monocrops and, increasingly, climate change. As overall global rainfall has increased during the last century in concert with rising greenhouse gas emissions and water vapor, Hawaii's recorded precipitation has dropped 5 percent to 20 percent between 1901 and 2005, a trend that can be seen globally across the same band of latitude (between 19 degrees north and 28 degrees north). As the oceans warm, atmospheric circulation in the Pacific has decreased, a condition which is believed to be lessening the ability of the trade winds to push precipitation onto the islands. Surface temperatures are also increasing, particularly at high elevations. Given the remoteness of the islands, many of its native species have evolved to live within a specific ecological niche and have few other places to go.

The loss of biodiversity has unwanted ramifications. Genetic variety strengthens an ecosystem by increasing its defenses, making it more resilient against disease and reducing the need for pesticide use. Further, as much as 50 percent of the pharmaceutical compounds on the US market are derived from plants, animals and microorganisms, while about 80 percent of the world's medicine comes from nature. Yet only a tiny fraction of wild species has been investigated for medical and other potential; when we lose species, we have no idea what kind of benefits, uses and insights we are also losing.

Biodiversity also helps provide a variety of interconnected and beneficial processes, or “ecosystem services,” whose value we are only beginning to really recognize and quantify, including bird and insect pollination, water and air purification, and overall ecological health and resilience – essential ingredients for any functioning society.

Several organizations – such as the National Tropical Botanical Garden – are therefore working to protect biodiversity and restore species at risk of extinction with practices including hand-pollinating endangered species, targeting and removing invasive species that threaten watersheds, and cataloguing and preserving species in extensive herbarium collections.

Indigenous people of the islands (Kanaka Maoli) also highlight ancestral traditions of local resource management and permaculture that enhanced ecosystem services and helped diverse species thrive. This system became diluted as large tracts of land were privatized and turned over to export monocrops like sugar, which gained protection as the US military overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and set up a new provisional government. Much of the land not used for export crops or military bases was transformed for tourism, Hawaii's largest industry. As the amount of available land decreased, imports rose, accounting for 85 to 90 percent of the food in Hawaii today.

To combat this, some Native Hawaiian people are reclaiming indigenous cultural traditions of small-scale, local ecosystem management. Ho'opuka Learning Center, for example, grows taro and breadfruit, providing not only food, but a wetland habitat for birds and plants, a natural system that filters out impurities from the water, a sink for carbon, and a hands-on educational center for future generations. A recent study in Forest Ecology and Management found that community management of forests – informed by local needs and grounded in tenure rights – provides more protection for ecosystems than even protected areas, as it gives its residents incentive and stability to protect and maintain resources. Policy support for these types of programs offers a model of adaptation as well as mitigation, creating healthier ecosystems while lowering overall food and goods imports.

Lessons From Alaska and Hawaii

With their radically differing climates, Alaska and Hawaii reveal changes in practices and policies that can help us better adapt to climate change.

Given Alaska's sensitivity to heat, the quick and steady changes there demonstrate the current gaps in our disaster management and adaptation policies, particularly for those facing the loss of their homelands. Communities like Kivalina are vulnerable not only to the effects of climate change, but to our lack of national response. Designating a government agency officially tasked with assisting communities facing displacement can go a long way toward ensuring safety for all of the United States.

Hawaii shows that even subtle changes in species introduction, land use and climate can dramatically affect certain ecosystems and undo the benefits offered by millions of years of evolutionary diversification. Conservationists are working to save and restore these species, while traditional resource management practices can enhance ecosystem services, rather than deplete them, and mitigate greenhouse and other health and environmental effects by lessening the need for imports. Supporting these programs fosters healthier relationships between people and land, benefitting all of us.

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