Climate Refugees: Don’t let their culture melt away
About the project

Climate refugees are people who are forced to move because climate change has destroyed their homes. Today, there are only small numbers of climate refugees, but there will soon be millions. If we create a framework for aiding climate refugees, we can preserve their culture, and not just their lives, in the absence of the home which defined that culture.

What you need to know

Climate change is already affecting places like Shishmaref, Alaska, where the effects of global warming are destroying Sarichef Island, just south of the Arctic Circle. As we pump more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the world warms up and the polar ice caps melt. This causes the oceans to rise and storms to become more severe. Sarichef Island used to be surrounded by strong winter pack ice that would protect the island from the harsh winter storms of the Chukchi Sea. However, the pack ice now forms later every year, leaving the coastline of Sarichef, just a few miles long, exposed to the winter waves. The permafrost in the soil of the island, once rock-hard, is now melting and makes the tiny island an easy target for the winter storm surge and rising sea levels. The island will soon be gone.

The Kigiqtaamiut, the Inupiat Eskimo people of Shishmaref, have lived in the vicinity of Sarichef Island for generations. Their culture is uniquely tied to this particular place in almost every way, from the language they speak and foods they hunt to the art they make. As Shishmaref slides further into the ocean every year, the state has put together a plan to move the villagers to a new home far from Sarichef. Their lives are not at stake but everything about their land that makes them who they are as a people will be gone, forever.

Why this matters

Although they may seem geographically remote to many of you, drastic climate events that sever the tie between a place and a people are becoming more common every year. The work that we do in Alaska, where villages are becoming climate refugees, is going to become increasingly important when entire nations, like the Maldives, go underwater in the near future.

In some places there are plans to help climate refugees migrate. This is challenging enough that most plans don’t go any further than basic resettlement. To preserve the cultural history of a specific lost place, we need to develop new ways of thinking about climate refugees. We need to work on preserving place-based cultures, especially in places that have been irrevocably changed by the climate. We can do it by connecting current climate refugees, like the Kigiqtaamiut, with near-future refugees like the Maldivians.

What your money can do

Funding from this project will be used to write my Master’s thesis at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs in the University of Washington.

I will go to Alaska, hire a research assistant, travel to remote villages and conduct interviews with current and future climate refugees. Funds above the minimum level will be used to stay longer, interview more people, and make contact with communities in other parts of the world that are likely to produce many climate refugees in the near future, like the Maldives.

Potential discoveries

By having climate refugees themselves be the key informants of my research, I will be able to develop criteria to distinguish what makes climate refugees distinct from people who simply want to move to a new home.

I plan to look at the existing American legal framework for refugees, and discover how it could potentially be applied to resettle climate refugees. I also want to explore existing cultural preservation techniques and explore how they can be repurposed to fight the cultural effects of climate change.


Rachel Aronson is a Master’s Candidate at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington, with a BA in Biology from the University of Pennsylvania. She’s currently a Science Writing Fellow at Washington Sea Grant, where she uses her passion for communicating science to highlight exciting ocean research. Her background includes positions as an AZA Aquarist, a Marine Biology Teaching Assistant at the School for Field Studies, Mexico, and a Research Assistant in Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica.

Tuesday December 31, 2013
$50+ Backer only update
Tuesday December 31, 2013



On 12/26/13, I recieved word that my thesis, Adapting to Climate Change in Unalakleet, Alaska, had been accepted for archiving by the University of Washington! For those of you keeping score at home, I submitted my thesis back in June, when I graduated. In short order, it will be permanently archived online (it's not there yet).

For backers, expect an email soon with a digital copy of the thesis, and for some of you, a request for your address so that I can mail a physical copy.

Thank you all for your support and patience during this process! A year and ten months isn't a terribly long time in academia, but it's eternity on the internet. Rest assured, I haven't forgotten any of you.

In 2014, more work may be developed out of this research, and I promise to keep you all up-to-date. Thank you for helping me on this crowdfunding advennture!


Best wishes for a sweet new year,


Thursday March 21, 2013

Hello again! After a long but important delay (i.e., finishing up my degree requirements), this project is on the move once more! I'm writing from Nome, Alaska, where I was invited to give a talk on my initial findings at the Western Alaska Interdisciplinary Science Conference.

Not only will I get to give my very first conference talk, but I'll also get to catch up with lots of the people I met last summer in Nome and Unalakleet. I'll be back in Unalakleet this weekend, too!

I'll be blogging as usual at and tweeting @rachelaronson as long as I have internet access.

I know it's been a long time since you funded this project, but if there's still interest, I'd be happy to do a webcast of my conference talk! Let me know what you think.




Thursday August 23, 2012
Backer only update
Sunday August 12, 2012

Time to collect your addresses so I can send you a postcard from Alaska!


Please fill in your data here.

Sunday August 12, 2012

Hello there! It has been a long summer, but it is almost time to go to Alaska! Two villages, Shishmaref and Unalakleet ended up approving my research proposal, and I have decided to go to Unalakleet. It's a small community on Norton Sound, but for a place of about 800 residents, it has several claims to fame! Not only is it a stop on the Iditarod, but it was also featured in the Discovery Channel show Flying Wild Alaska. Of course, it's also well known for experiencing the effects of climate change, too. Unalakleet is noted by both the Alaskan government and NOAA as one of the most vulnerable communities in the state, and they face a lot of important decisions on how to best adapt to climate change in the next few years.

It's going to be an exciting trip! Thank YOU for making it all possible!


For further updates, please point your browsers to the snazzy

Monday April 30, 2012

There's an article on this project up at a local Seattle website. Check it out!

Thursday April 26, 2012

Today's news link is an op-ed from the Toledo Blade, a newspaper in Ohio. Author Tom Henry misses the complete American climate story-- there's more to Alaskan environmental migrants than sinking into permafrost, as all of you know!

But he makes a great arguement for taking responsibility for climate change. And then there's this quote, from R.K. Pachauri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

"You really can't treat human beings as cattle," he said. "They can't be taken from one part of the world. Their fathers' and grandfathers' bones are there. Their cultures are established in that place. They have a way of life. How can you even think of uprooting them?"


Tuesday April 24, 2012

Some links to share, and a call for your help:

A climate refugee's story, from Bangladesh

And an article on Newtok, AK, about their relocation problems.


And now, a request: we have ten days left to finish funding this project! I am so grateful for how much support I've already received from you.

Petridish only hands over funds if the project gets fully funded. So what I'm asking of you over the next ten days is: share!

Share this page through Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, or good old-fashioned face-to-face. Handy buttons for this very purpose are up at the top right of the page.

Tell your friends that you think it's important to put a human face on climate change.

If anyone has questions about the project, contact me through the comments, or @RachelAronson on Twitter.

Tuesday April 24, 2012
Tuesday April 03, 2012

We broke $600 this week, and we're almost past 20%!

I just finished a paper to cap off the seminar in Iceland-- "Inuit-led educational reform: building multi-level social resilience"

This week's project for me is to pull together the website for you all to follow along on the research project. That paper will be the first thing to go up!


Wednesday March 28, 2012

The outtake is live, at

We're almost at $600-- I don't have any more videos of birds flying out of my head, but I'm sure I can find something special to mark the milestone.

Thursday March 22, 2012

Hello from Iceland! We're raised over $500, thank you all!
I have a great document to share with you, Sheila Watt-Cloutier's testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Watt-Cloutier was the chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and this speech is completely worth reading for the way it transcends national boundaries and connects indigenous peoples who face climate change around the world.

You can follow me on Twitter @RachelAronson for the Inuit word of the day and more news from Iceland.

Wednesday March 14, 2012

We broke $400! I have some outtakes from the video to share with you all if the airport WiFi lets me!

Wednesday March 14, 2012

Currently en route to Reykjavik, Iceland and thence to Isafjordur for a seminar, "Indigenous Diplomacies and International Relations in the Arctic"! I may be a little slow responding to comments due to travel, but I will get around to them!

Tuesday March 06, 2012

Welcome to my Petridish page! Please post questions or comments; I'll be here and respond as soon as I can!

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This project was successful!
$10 +
Virtual expedition to Alaska: Exclusive photos, videos, and descriptions as the expedition happens!
$20 +
Join the virtual expedition team, plus I’ll send you a postcard from Alaska
$50 +
Virtual expedition, a postcard from Alaska, and a signed hard copy of the first research or articles that emerge from the expedition
$100 +
Virtual expedition, a postcard from Alaska, signed research papers or articles and being listed by name in the Acknowledgements section of my thesis
$500 +
All of the above, PLUS I’ll give a talk on climate refugees at the location of your choosing anywhere in Washington state or by Skype
$1,000 +
All of the above, PLUS I’ll give a talk on climate refugees anywhere I can reasonably get to (I travel a lot, let’s talk!)
and 59 others