What Does Climate Change in the Arctic Have to Do with Property Rights?

Blog Post
Eastgreenlander / Shutterstock.com
June 16, 2021

Climate change is generating irreversible effects in the Arctic and beyond, devastating unique ecosystems, increasing the acidity of surface ocean waters by 30 percent, and contributing to 3.4 inches of rising seas since 1993.

But it’s also important to consider how rising temperatures negatively affect communities, their homes, and infrastructure throughout the region. Local reprecussions arising from climate change will drastically impact housing, land, and property rights (HLP) in Arctic countries, and particularly in coastal regions.

The Arctic Circle and Surrounding States
Source: Rainer Lesniewski / Shutterstock.com

Issues concerning Arctic HLP are compounded by complex dynamics, including Indigenous traditions, geopolitical realities, and resource constraints. Perhaps that’s not exclusive to the top of the globe. Yet we’re seeing many climate-related challenges play out in the Arctic first, and any answers to these problems potentially hold valuable lessons for other parts of the world.

This short blog series on the Arctic will explore how climate change and HLP interact, and will discuss local, national and international strategies. The current, introductory piece highlights key cases and provides context for larger climate-related trends and how they relate to land, housing, and property rights.

Take disappearing sea ice, to start, which is perhaps the most important and overarching climatic issue in the Arctic right now. Sea ice is incredibly important to coastal livelihoods, as it creates a calming effect on the sea and allows for Indigenous Arctic communities to maintain their traditional hunting activities. Without protective ice, waves and strong winds cause dangerous conditions that make fishing hazardous and can even threaten coastal infrastructure.

Then there’s thawing permafrost, which generates dangerous physical and economic consequences for Arctic communities. Approximately 70 percent of regional infrastructure is built on permafrost, meaning that thawing threatens not only the homes and schools of Arctic communities, but also the infrastructure used by resource extraction industries, humanitarian assistance agencies, and defense operations of Arctic states.

An adaptation example: the Cold Climate Housing Research Center created a prototype "home on skis," so that as the ocean rises, the house can be towed across the tundra.
Source: Cold Climate Housing Research Center

The changing environment presents significant questions about land, housing, and property rights. Because so much of Arctic infrastructure is now vulnerable, how can housing be made more resilient? And should communities shore up defenses by building coastal walls and finding additional approaches that don’t demand relocation? Or should states facilitate the movement of coastal communities to land that is safer?

Some communities are already considering relocation due to climate change, presenting a financial and moral challenge to groups that often hold location-based worldviews and cultural heritage. Most Alaska Native villages are impacted by coastal erosion and flooding; this presents challenges to community resilience and cultural survival. Will or should communities be given parcels that are equivalent to ones they owned before? Whose land will be given away and, given Indigenous cultural place-based traditions, is equivalency possible?

There’s clearly quite a bit to unpack regarding housing and land up north.

Throughout this series, we will discuss three cases that represent the connection between HLP and climate change in the Arctic. These cases were chosen to illustrate a diversity of different mitigation and adaptation policies, or lack thereof, as well as a broad geographic spread. These three cases are:

  • Alaskan communities and policies of managed retreat: Rising sea levels in Alaska are leading to constant erosion, flooding, thawing permafrost, infrastructure damage, and a variety of other knock-on consequences. With the adverse effects of climate change creeping to their shores, Indigenous communities in Alaska such as Newtok and Shishmaref are now forced to consider total community relocation. Some communities have determined that relocation is the only valid long-term adaptation strategy, but it’s not without costs. How can and should communities decide on land that fits their needs, and should new types of resilient housing be constructed?
  • Reindeer migration patterns and Indigenous communities in Russia and Norway: Warming temperatures and increased weather events originating from climate change are having detrimental impacts on the movement of reindeer in Norway and Russia. Because reindeer are having trouble adapting to shifting land conditions, so too are the communities who rely on them. There are no policies currently in place to address how changing land conditions are impacting Indigenous communities in Russia and Norway, and the situation presents serious challenges to traditional land use. What is the future of land in Arctic tundra spaces, and should land traditionally used by reindeer herders be left for pastoralism purposes and protected from natural resource exploitation?
  • Rising land in Iceland: While many countries face the possibility of losing land to the sea as a result of climate change, Iceland is actually gaining land due to melting glaciers. Given that 11 percent of the country’s territory is covered by glaciers, this trend presents serious concerns for a variety of industries and livelihoods. Iceland is taking measures to address these concerns, but it may be too late for its glaciers, forcing policymakers to look at adaptation rather than mitigation. The disappearing ice also prompts some interesting questions: who owns the land underneath the glaciers? And what type of new policies, if any, regarding land use is Reykyavík adopting such as reforestation?

The detrimental effects of climate change are occurring faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the globe. Thus, the strategies for adapting land, housing, and property rights might serve as a framework for understanding the challenges–and maybe even opportunity–in the rest of the world. While national and international frameworks will certainly be helpful in shaping policies, localized responses to geographically-specific challenges–whether managed retreat policies, traditional land usage agreements, or discussions of new property rights frameworks–will likely be instrumental in creating sustainable approaches to land and climate change, both inside and outside the Arctic Circle.

Related Topics
Frontiers in Land, Housing and Property Rights