For years, the town of Iñupiat town of Shishmaref, located on a small barrier island off the coast of the Seward Peninsula in western Alaska, faced severe erosion, sometimes losing large areas of land to the Bering Strait during storms. The melting of permafrost, the underground layer of soil that perpetually sits at sub-freezing temperatures in some polar and high-altitude climates, sped the rate at which the island’s shores collapsed1. In August of 2016, Shishmaref’s residents decided that the risks of remaining on a disappearing island were too great to ignore and voted 94-78 to move the entire community inland, away from where it had persisted for hundreds of years1,.
Alaska is no stranger to permafrost melting, one of the most visible negative effects of climate change that can be found in the United States. By some estimates, permafrost underlies up to two-thirds of Alaska’s land area. As permafrost melts, it loses its firmness, often collapsing homes and roads, as has been seen in permafrost-covered areas across the state.,. These collapses have had particularly severe effects on Native Alaskan communities like Shishmaref4,5. Globally, vast reservoirs of carbon are locked within permafrost, which releases methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide, when it melts. The warming contribution of this methane has the potential to cause a feedback with devastating climatic consequences, in which permafrost that melts due to warmer temperatures also contributes to those temperatures by way of its methane releases.
The scope of problems created by melting permafrost calls for an increase in federal funding for research efforts that can result in recommendations for maintenance of solid, stable, and frozen permafrost by way of management practices and support for residents that both protect communities and maintain the ecological productivity of land in Alaska. One example of current knowledge relates to the effects of off-road vehicles (ORVs, a category that includes both ATVs and large industrial equipment such as Caterpillar tractors) on permafrost. A review conducted in 1990 discussed existing research that found increased melting associated with ORV usage in permafrost-covered areas and recommended mapping of particularly sensitive areas, training of ORV drivers, and regulations on where and how often ORVs can operate8. Funding should be directed to evaluation of other human activities—potentially including logging and building construction—that affect permafrost integrity. On the community side, Shishmaref residents have expressed concerns that the state and federal governments will not assist them in their relocation1. The federal government should work with communities affected by permafrost melting and the state of Alaska to ensure that these communities receive the help they need to either relocate or slow the destabilization of permafrost. Ultimately, due to the global ramifications of permafrost melting, the United States and Alaska have a responsibility to employ strategies to protect permafrost and provide research that can both benefit permafrost-underlain communities in other persistently cold climates as well as their own (such as in Siberia and northern Canada) and protect the carbon reservoirs held within the world’s frozen soil.
 Herrmann, Victoria, and Eli Keene, “Self-Preservation: Amid Debate, An Alaskan Village Decides to Move Inland”, the Arctic Institute, last modified July 11, 2017, accessed March 17, 2019, https://www.thearcticinstitute.org/self-preservation-amid-debate-alaskan-village-decides-move-inland/.
 Jon Campbell, “USGS Assesses Carbon Potential of Alaska Lands”, U.S. Geological Survey, last modified June 1, 2016, accessed February 27, 2019, https://www.usgs.gov/news/usgs-assesses-carbon-potential-alaska-lands.
 “Climate Impacts in Alaska”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, accessed February 27, 2019, https://archive.epa.gov/epa/climate-impacts/climate-impacts-alaska.html.
 Nancy Fresco, “In Alaska, everyone’s grappling with climate change”, The Conversation, October 22, 2018, accessed February 27, 2019, https://theconversation.com/in-alaska-everyones-grappling-with-climate-change-105032.
 Jim Powell, “Climate Change and Alaskan Wetlands”, Association of State Wetland Managers, last modified January 10, 2015, accessed February 27, 2019, https://www.aswm.org/pdf_lib/climate_change_alaskan_wetlands_0307.pdf.
 Charles W. Slaughter, et al., “Use of Off-road Vehicles and Mitigation of Effects in Alaska Permafrost Environments: A Review”, Environmental Management 14, no. 1 (January 1990): 63-72, https://www.doi.org/10.1007/BF02394020.