Updated at 9:39 p.m. ET
On the front lines of climate change, warming temperatures and thawing permafrost are making it harder to get an accurate count for the 2020 census in some of the most remote communities of Alaska.
Since 1960, the Census Bureau has started the once-a-decade, constitutionally mandated head count in Alaska Native villages in January — months before the census rolls out to the rest of Alaska and other states by April — to take advantage of the frigid winter weather.
When Alaska is at its coldest, census workers are more likely to find village residents, some of whom migrate to hunt and fish for subsistence or work, in their home communities. Before the spring thaw, census workers have also been able to journey across miles of frozen ground and ice roads on snow machines (known in the Lower 48 as snowmobiles) or sometimes in dog sleds to reach villages usually accessible only by bush plane or boat in the warmer months.
But as temperatures in Alaska climb faster than in any other state and twice as fast as the global average, counting in some communities has become more complicated — adding yet another layer to long-standing challenges, such as language barriers and distrust of the U.S. government, that have hindered the Census Bureau's ability to produce complete population counts of Alaska Native groups.
In 2010, the bureau estimates that it net undercounted American Indians and Alaska Natives living on reservations by 4.9% — the highest rate among all racial and ethnic groups. But in Alaska, where there is only one reservation, it's unclear exactly how accurate the bureau's counts are for Alaska Native villages, which have not been included in the bureau's undercount estimates.
Leaning telephone poles and falling buildings
"We've seen landmasses just disappear overnight," says Romy Cadiente, a local official for Newtok, a village in southwest Alaska where erosion has been eating away an average of 70 feet a year, forcing many residents to flee for firmer ground.
In some homes, rising waters from the Ninglick River have seeped through floorboards, and black mold has festered.
"The permafrost beneath Newtok is actually degrading much to the point where there are leaning telephone poles all over the village," Cadiente says. "Structures are beginning to fall from their foundation."
But in October, after decades of planning and fundraising, about a third of Newtok's residents packed their belongings into boats and relocated to 21 new homes on higher ground across the river in Mertarvik, Alaska — a replacement village about 9 miles southeast of Newtok. The new site is now outfitted with its own power plant, water facility and landing-strip airport, according to Cadiente, who serves as the relocation coordinator.
"A very scary question"
For the 2020 count, the Census Bureau is currently planning to count the community as two villages with separate population counts.
"We do not expect these two [census-designated places] to be merged for the 2020 Census, but we will not know with absolute certainty until the summer," the bureau said in a written statement to NPR, noting that the bureau is waiting for final input from the state of Alaska.
The bureau's plans have raised concerns about how they could affect population-based federal funding that villages like Newtok count on for housing and infrastructure. Cadiente says local officials, who have been consumed with carrying out the first wave of relocation, are now left wondering how much funding the community can receive over the next decade.
"That's a very good question and a very scary question," Cadiente says. "There's got to be a way for communities that experience these kinds of threats to have additional funding in the transitionary period."
The "indescribable" threat of erosion
Counting for the 2020 census officially began last month southwest of Newtok in another Alaska Native village, Toksook Bay, which is home to 590 residents, according to the 2010 count. Census Bureau officials crossed the tundra by bush plane to reach the fishing village along the Bering Sea.
"Recent global warming has a lot of effect in coastal areas," says Robert Pitka, Toksook Bay's tribal administrator, who leads the Nunakauyak Traditional Council, which governs the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe. "It's not just one village. It's in all the villages."
In less than a week, census workers finished visiting homes in Toksook Bay to conduct in-person interviews using paper forms and pencils. But Pitka and other village officials won't see the latest census results for at least a year. The bureau is not expected to start releasing data about local communities until early 2021.
While he waits for the numbers, Pitka has been mulling over what he considers to be one of the biggest challenges that climate change has brought to Alaska Native villages.
"I'm just worried that there may be lack of funding to fix all kinds of erosion occurring in many villages," Pitka says. "It's indescribable."
"Maybe they will not have winter"
For Diana Therchik, the operations manager for the Toksook Bay Sub-regional Clinic, this was partly foreseeable.
The rising temperatures remind her of what Yup'ik elders have long predicted, and she wonders if census workers may encounter a vastly different Alaska by the next U.S. census in 2030.
"The way things are going, maybe they won't have snow. Maybe they will not have winter," Therchik says. "That's like so many years from now, and I just don't know."
For now, she's worried about the ice roads that other villages rely on to get to Toksook Bay's health clinic. They're often the same ones that census workers have to use to get around during the count. In recent winters, Therchik says, it has sometimes been too warm for patients to drive over a nearby river.
"It hasn't frozen over. And it's made it more difficult to get seen over here, so they rely on planes more," Therchik says.
Snowfall can make trekking by snow machine especially dangerous during warmer winters, because travelers often can't spot thin, untrustworthy ice.
"You can't see it when it's warm. The top part is white, and you fall through," says Noah Lincoln, a subsistence hunter and assistant coach for the local high school boys' basketball team, the Toksook Bay Islanders, who frequently travel to away games in snow machine-pulled sleds.
"You're going to see that census number drop a little bit"
Asked by NPR how it's responding to the increased risk of travel on ice roads because of climate change, the Census Bureau said in a written statement that the safety of its workers is "of the utmost importance."
"The Census Bureau hires census takers locally who understand the terrain they are traveling and who know the challenges faced in Alaska," the bureau says.
To prepare for the count in remote Alaska, the bureau adds that it analyzed past climate data to schedule visits to villages before the spring thaw. Last year, officials also made early visits to villages and confirmed that five villages do not need to be counted for the 2020 census because they have been abandoned.
In Newtok, Cadiente, the community's relocation coordinator, says it's not clear when all residents will be able to move out of the eroding village. But many are not waiting to see what else climate change brings.
"There are so many people that are scared about the weather, so a lot of people have been seeking shelter with their relatives all over the region," Cadiente says. "You're going to see that census number drop a little bit."
Ten years from now, though, Cadiente wants to see Newtok's community reunited on solid ground in its new village of Mertarvik — population 350 by the 2030 census, he hopes, or maybe even higher.