An interdisciplinary approach to coastal resilience in Alaska

Small boat traveling down a river near Chevak, Alaska.
Chevak, on the Ningliktak River, looking towards the Bering Sea in September 2022, two weeks after Typhoon Merbok. The typhoon caused a storm surge, inundating the coastal plain several miles inland, destroying boats, nets and other equipment important to subsistence. Photo by Davin Holen/Alaska Sea Grant.

A team from Alaska Sea Grant, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, the University of Alaska Anchorage Economics Department, and a filmmaker, is working with students and the community in Chevak, located in southwest Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. The researchers are addressing issues of coastal change, food security and migration in this region.

Chevak has relocated three times over the past 100 years. They are currently based nine miles from the coast on a bluff overlooking the coastal plain. During Typhoon Merbok in September, storm surge advanced all the way inland to surround the community on three sides. The rising water scattered boats, nets, and other equipment important for the subsistence way of life across the tundra.

While in Chevak this fall, Chris Maio, a coastal geologist and Alaska Sea Grant-funded researcher who leads the project’s coastal change research, worked with the Chevak Traditional Council to map the current coastline and compare it with older data to understand coastal change and the impact of the typhoon.

Man teaching science lessons related to coastal change to a room full of students. Monitor in background with map of a coast in Western Alaska.
Chris Maio leading students through science sessions related to coastal change. Photo by Davin Holen/Alaska Sea Grant.

Along with Maio, Alaska Sea Grant education specialist Leigh Lubin led 150 school students through several days of science lessons related to coastal change. 

Ryan Peterson is capturing the community’s story and  producing a full length documentary for the project. While in Chevak this fall, Ryan took the opportunity to teach students in the school about filmmaking.

Davin Holen, Alaska Sea Grant’s coastal community resilience specialist, met with the Chevak Traditional Council and shared a presentation about the project.

Lance Howe, an economist at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is working on food security and helping to ensure that the research benefits the community and Chevak Traditional Council’s initiatives. The team engaged with the community broadly during their visit, and they supplied and cooked dinner for over 300 community members.Over the next two years, the POLARIS project will continue to collaborate with the Chevak School and Chevak Traditional Council to conduct research, build resilience, and understand environmental changes occurring in the region. The Polaris Project is part of the National Science Foundation Navigating the New Arctic Initiative and includes researchers from the Pennsylvania State University and Michigan Technical University.

Learn more about the typhoon’s impact on the Chevak community in this video by Ryan Peterson.