SFN Researchers Find Surprising Demographic Trends in Arctic Alaska

In a new, open-access publication released this weekend by Population & Environment, SFN researchers, led by Larry Hamilton, look for demographic changes in rural Alaska that track with what we expect to happen as a result of rapid and dangerous climate change in the region.

The term "climigration" was coined by Alaska civil rights lawyer Robin Bronen, to describe the impending and ostensibly inevitable out-migration by Alaska Natives and other rural residents from remote Alaska communities imperiled by climate change. 

Figure 4 from Hamilton et al. 2016. Net-migration rates for 43 communities in Arctic Alaska. While some people are leaving, note that following the fuel cost hikes and recession in 2008 and 2009, outmigration decreased for several years, turning to net in-migration in 2011.

Figure 4 from Hamilton et al. 2016. Net-migration rates for 43 communities in Arctic Alaska. While some people are leaving, note that following the fuel cost hikes and recession in 2008 and 2009, outmigration decreased for several years, turning to net in-migration in 2011.

Armed with a demographic database of 43 Arctic Alaska communities, we looked for early indications of "climigration". Surprisingly, we found none. We looked at general trends for the region, and for responses in the communities considered most imperiled, for example, because of coastal erosion. We also looked for responses to economic hardship, such as the fuel and food cost spikes and subsequent US recession of 2008 and 2009. 

What we find is that, overwhelmingly, arctic Alaska communities are growing. What outmigration is happening is more than offset by local births. Indeed, if some people were not leaving these communities, they would be growing at a notably higher rate. Our findings are surprising, given what has been seen elsewhere around the world, and they raise interesting questions about who is leaving, who is staying, why, and what that means for the future.

To be clear, our results DO NOT show that climate change is not impacting northern communities. We know already through multiple research projects and local accounts that it is. What this research shows is that migration--whether people choose to leave places that they call home (and whose families may have called home for generations)--is complex, and not driven by environmental factors alone. 

Figure 5 from Hamilton et al., (2016). Kivalina, AK is just one of many of the arctic communities in Alaska that is growing, despite outmigration, and despite climate change challenges. Growth is primarily because of new births. 

Figure 5 from Hamilton et al., (2016). Kivalina, AK is just one of many of the arctic communities in Alaska that is growing, despite outmigration, and despite climate change challenges. Growth is primarily because of new births. 

Why people are not leaving these imperiled communities is unclear, but a worthy research question in its own right, and one that our research team is investigating. However, with respect to climate change impacts now and in the future, the fact that these communities are continuing to grow, despite outmigration by some segments of the local population, does not bode well for future vulnerability. As climate impacts become more severe, who remains? Are people "locked in" from leaving economically or otherwise? 

Our concern is that the data we report here indicates that the current and future human burden of climate change in the Arctic is increasing before our eyes. 

You can read the full report here.

Posted on June 27, 2016 .