Demographics and Environment
Southwest Alaska is a vast area, stretching nearly 1,500 miles across, that encompasses four boroughs and two census areas: the Aleutians East Borough, the Aleutians West Census Area, the Bristol Bay Borough, the Dillingham Census Area, the Kodiak Island Borough, and the Lake and Peninsula Borough. From Anchorage, it is 180 air miles to the nearest Southwest community of Port Alsworth, and nearly 1,700 miles to the westernmost island of Attu. There is no overland connectivity to or from the region and much of the land consists of islands; accessible only by marine vessels or airplanes. Transportation of freight and people is very expensive.
The area of the SWAMC region spans 93,875 square miles, with nearly 61,000 square miles of land mass and an additional 33,000 square miles of water surface including the State water boundaries extending three miles from land. It is an area roughly equivalent to the State of Oregon, or 16.5% of the total area of Alaska.
Southwest Alaska boasts a wide variety of landscapes and physical characteristics including estuaries and lagoons; wetlands and tidal flats; rocky islands and sea cliffs; exposed high-energy coasts; rivers, streams and lakes; boreal forests/taiga; alpine and low arctic tundra; glaciers and barren alpine; and temperate rainforests.
Southwest Alaska has nearly 12,000 miles of shoreline, which accounts for nearly 40% of the shoreline for the State of Alaska. In comparison, the contiguous 48 states have a combined shoreline of 16,900 miles. As shown in Figure 2.3, a shallow continental shelf follows the near-shore landmass, accompanied by deeper water in the western Bering Sea, and extreme depths of the Aleutian Trench. Historically, sea ice forms annually from the Pribilof Islands to the Bering Sea, extending into Bristol Bay south to Egegik, but remains ice-free year-round south of this line. Due to its proximity to a very active section of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the region is home to many active volcanoes and experiences frequent earthquakes.
Figure 2.1: Southwest Alaska Area by Boroughs and Census Areas. Source: U.S. Census Bureau and Alaska Department of Community & Economic Development
Figure 2.2: Earthquakes in Southwest Alaska, Source: Alaska Earthquake Center
Figure 2.3: Topography of Southwest Alaska, Source: National Geographic Map Maker, 2019
Climatology & Oceanography
There are four climatic regions in Southwest Alaska: Western Maritime, Southcentral, West Coast, and Interior. The weather of Southwest Alaska is relatively warm and mild compared to other parts of the state. Wind and rain are prevalent across the marine environment. Average temperatures range from a high of 56.1°F in Iliamna in July to an average low of 15.1°F in Dillingham in January. Dillingham receives an average of 25.32 inches of precipitation per year while Kodiak receives an average of 78 inches per year (statewide average is 19.49 inches per year). Climate dramatically influences daily life in Southwest Alaska, affecting fishery decisions to travel over air and sea. Marine and aviation forecasts are of particular importance to the region. Proposed cuts to the National Weather Service are a concern affecting the region's resiliency to the known threat of inclement weather.
Use the filter to explore climate data for the Southwest region:
Ocean basin topography, currents, the extent of sea ice, water temperature and other environmental characteristics influence the productivity of the region’s saltwater environments. The Kushiro Current flows across the Pacific Ocean from Japan, splitting into two currents as it approaches North America. One current, the Alaska Current, turns north creating a counterclockwise flow into the Gulf of Alaska. Currents from the North Pacific move through saltwater passes in the Aleutian Chain into the Bering Sea. Currents in the Bering Sea are very complex, but generally tend to move counterclockwise. The interaction of ocean currents with nutrient-rich freshwater runoff from the region’s uplands is part of what makes the area such a productive fisheries ecosystem.
A shallow continental shelf follows the near-shore landmass, including the entire eastern Bering Sea, north and east of the Pribilof Islands, accompanied by deeper water in the western Bering Sea, and extreme depths of the Aleutian Trench (source: www.gi.alaska.edu). The last Ice Age left deep scars in the remaining land formation, which over the centuries of heavy rainfall have created some of the biggest lakes in Alaska, fed by mineral-rich glaciers, creating abundant and rich freshwater rivers. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game lists 3,174 entries for Southwest Alaska in the Catalog of Waters Important for the Spawning, Rearing or Migration of Anadromous Fishes (source: www.adfg.alaska.gov).
History, Culture, and Land Ownership
Southwest Alaska has over 29,300 residents living in fifty-four communities within the region. The people of Southwest Alaska are a diverse mix, with roots in the Alaska Native cultures of Yupik, Athabascan, Aleut, and Alutiiq, overlaid with over 130 years of Russian heritage and 280 years of western influences, especially the development of commercial fisheries. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971 defined Alaska Natives lands owned by right of traditional use and occupancy. ANCSA provided for the creation of regional and village corporations to receive settlement compensation in the form of cash and various land rights. The boundaries of three ANCSA regional corporations represent the three sub-districts of the SWAMC Region. ANCSA also created village corporations, including 47 in the SWAMC region. The regional and village corporations contribute substantially to local economic resiliency.
Land ownership patterns in Southwest Alaska mirror that of the rest of the state. The federal government is the largest landowner, followed by the State of Alaska, and then private ownership, the largest of which is held by ANCSA Native corporations (see Figure 2.7). The majority of federally owned lands have been set aside for public use. The National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service units are managed primarily for resource protection, fish and wildlife conservation, and recreation. The Bureau of Land Management manages for multiple use purposes including timber production, fish and wildlife, recreation, water, and mining. The remaining federal land is designated for special purposes, such as military reservations.
Figure 2.7: Land Ownership in SW Alaska, Source: Alaska Department of Natural Resources
Major state land units in the region fall into several broad categories: tidelands and submerged lands, parks, game refuges and sanctuaries, and critical habitat areas, including Wood-Tikchik State Park, the largest state park in the nation at 1.6 million acres.
ANCSA lands in the region have been developed in a variety of ways including logging; tourism facilities and activities; residential real estate development; federal and state land acquisition, habitat restoration activities; mining; and gravel and rock sales. Other private landowners, including individual and community holdings, comprise less than 1% of the remaining land in the region. The University of Alaska and the Alaska Mental Health Trust both have modest land holdings within Southwest Alaska.
People of Southwest Alaska
Populations throughout the region were mostly static 2000-2010. According to the 2010 Census, there are 29,769 people living in the Southwest Region. Almost half (13,592) of these residents live in the Kodiak Island Borough. See Figure 2.5 for trends by borough and census area. These numbers estimate permanent full-time residents and do not include temporary or seasonal residents. The population of some communities in Alaska can vary by as much as 20% due to the influx of seasonal tourism, fishing and construction workers.
The Southwest region is very diverse. As seen in Figure 2.8, 39% of the population is white, followed by 27% who are American Indian and Alaska Native and 22% who are Asian. There is significant variation in demographic composition in each borough/census area. The primary Alaska Native groups in the region include Aleut, Alutiiq and Central Yupik peoples and cultural traditions.
Fifty-six percent of the population in Southwest Alaska is male, which is higher than the statewide average of 52 percent. Most of this difference is accounted for by the gender composition of the populations in the Aleutians East Borough and the Aleutians West Census Area. In each of these two sub-regions, the population is comprised of nearly two-thirds males and slightly more than one-third females. A full distribution of the population by gender and age can be seen in Figure 2.9, with females in blue and males in green.
Estimates from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development indicate that there is a net migration out of the region (see Figure 2.6). Between 2011 and 2012 - 2,507 residents moved to the region and 2,656 residents left the region for a loss of 149 residents. However, population changes due to natural increases (births minus deaths) are resulting in a steady population over time.
In terms of education, school district enrollment has been holding steady across the region, see Figure 2.12. 53% of the population has gone to secondary school compared with 64% of the population in the state (includes some college through professional school degree). 26.9% have some college but no degree. Sixteen percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 27% in the state. Given the small sample size these numbers should be considered general estimates due to high margins of error.