Ice melts on tundra and thawing permafrost in Newtok, Alaska. The Ninglick River in the background is rapidly encroaching on the village. More than 70 feet of coastline erodes into the river each year. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Aaliyah Kasaiuli, 9, sleeps in on the last morning in her home. Her family had to move because the house was dangerously close to collapsing into the Ninglick River. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Alaska is the fastest-warming state in the nation. For many Native communities, rising temperatures have led to thawing permafrost, aggressive erosion and flooding. In Newtok — a Yupik village of nearly 400 — the damage is beyond repair.

Clinging to the western edge of the vast Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the village was populated after the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school in 1958. It was as far upriver as the barge carrying building supplies could travel.

In retrospect, not far enough.

Rapid erosion has brought the Ninglick River to within yards of residents’ homes. Thawing permafrost has shifted structures off foundations, skewed power lines and damaged boardwalks that are the sole thoroughfare. Waste from portable toilets called honey buckets has been distributed across the landscape by recurrent flooding.

Last summer, several families were displaced and their homes demolished to keep them from collapsing into the Ninglick.

In October, after years of planning and millions of dollars, nearly a third of the community began relocating to new homes on higher ground in Mertarvik, about nine miles away.

It will require several more years and tens of millions more dollars in funding that has yet to be obtained to complete the move.

These Americans are among the first to seek refuge from a rapidly changing environment.

They will not be the last.


A skull in a deteriorating gravesite in Old Kayalivik, outside Newtok. Members of this Yupik settlement migrated from here after the Bureau of Indian Affairs built a school in Newtok in the late 1950s. It was as far upriver as the barge carrying building supplies could travel. The Yupik people have lived in the region for 2,000 years. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Boardwalks extend across the village and provide the sole thoroughfare. The large building is the school. The Ninglick River is in the right background. The Newtok River is in the left background. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Maryann Carl, 13, tugs water across a sinking boardwalk. The homes lack running water, so residents fill buckets at a water tower. The quality of the water is uncertain, and some residents boil it before using it. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Workers deconstruct one of seven houses that were close to collapsing into the Ninglick River. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Monica Kasayuli, 70, responds to the stress of moving her family out of the house she has lived in for decades and into temporary housing while waiting to move to Mertarvik. “I cried before I left the house,” Kasayuli said. “So, so many memories. . . . It took a long, long time to get the house paid off.” Her house was one of seven demolished last summer because it was close to collapsing into the Ninglick River. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Workers dismantle houses nearest to the rapidly eroding shoreline. Seven houses were knocked down last summer because they were perilously close to collapsing into the Ninglick River. Newtok loses more than 70 feet of shoreline every year. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Jasmine Alexie, 10, practices archery near her home. Hunting and fishing are essential for the subsistence lifestyle of the Yupik community. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Autumn Nevak, Jasmine Alexie and Maryann Carl play basketball late in the evening. Summer days are nearly endless, and children often play into the early-morning hours. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

A resident passes a defunct wastewater line in Newtok. With the exception of the school, the village does not have indoor plumbing. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Low tide reveals sandbags and structures that have eroded into the Ninglick River. The river has already engulfed the landfill and barge landing. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Shayla David, 9, waits with her puppy to cross the Ninglick River to her new home in Mertarvik. Nearly a third of the village began migrating to higher ground in October. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

A child's tricycle sinks in the muck off a boardwalk. Honey buckets dumped in the river get distributed across the landscape during recurring floods. The conditions are thought to be contributing to a high rate of respiratory infections in the community. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

An American flag serves as a bathroom door in a house the Kasayuli family occupied while waiting to move to Mertarvik. Villagers do not have plumbing. They rely on honey buckets and dump the waste into the nearby river. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Albertina Charles pauses in her soon-to-be demolished kitchen. Charles, who teaches the Yupik language, moved temporarily into a trailer and then the school before finally her new home in Mertarvik in October. Charles said, “If only there was no erosion or permafrost melting, we would still be here.” (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Latesha Tom and Jasmine Alexie hang out in Alexie's room before moving day. Alexie and her family were among the first families — nearly a third of the village — to move to Mertarvik. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Albertina Charles delights in her new kitchen in Mertarvik. Although the new site will not have piped water and sewer for a few more years, residents will no longer need honey buckets, as all the homes utilize a PASS system. The design includes water storage and treatment and waste-separating toilets. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Shayla David, 9, plays near piles of belongings along the shore of the Ninglick River on moving day. Her new home will be in Mertarvik, across the river, on higher ground, about nine miles away. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The sun begins to set beyond a villager riding his ATV on the airstrip in Newtok, Alaska. The community expects to be a model for other Alaskan villages that are grappling with climate change. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

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