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Climate scientists need collaboration with tribal communities for solutions, OU study shows

University of Oklahoma

A new study led by researchers at the University of Oklahoma shows that Native Americans face flooding risks more than the general population in the state. Collaboration between Indigenous peoples and scientists could help protect frontline communities.

The study, published by the American Meteorological Society, says tribal nations like the Otoe-Missouria are nearly 70% more susceptible to flooding than the general population in Oklahoma.

OU’s School of Meteorology and the Department of Native American Studies collaborated on the research, using regional climate models and flash flood models to help make climate-related risk assessments and recommendations for Native lands.

Zhi Li is the study's lead author and a recent meteorology school graduate. Li was invited to visit the Otoe-Missouria Tribe 26 miles north of Stillwater after historic floods hit the community in 2019, leaving culturally significant sites like encampment grounds, as well as cars and homes underwater.

He said the motivation for this research is to bridge the gap between scientists and tribal communities.

“We need to learn from how they deal with climate and how to deal with nature so that we can co-develop some nature-based solutions, rather than engineering ways to deal with nature,” Li said.

Li said scientists can’t do this work alone. He hopes this study will help scientists better support communities on the frontlines of climate change, instead of just extracting knowledge from them.

Farina King is a co-author of the study and the Horizon Endowed Chair of Native American Ecology and Culture at OU, and she echoes Li’s hopes.

King said this research is the first step in connecting top climate scientists with tribal communities and building collaborative relationships.

“It is essential that we take this time to build those relationships, trust, [and] learn the specific protocols of those Indigenous communities,” she said.

She said to come up with climate solutions, like it is important to understand Native American perspectives.

According to Otoe-Missouria Tribe Emergency Manager James LeClair, the tribe has been working with OU since 2019 to assess and evaluate past, present, and future flood damage to their tribal lands.

Since then, the tribe has found several solutions that could mitigate flood damage including retention ponds and reinforcing the banks of Red Rock Creek.

The Otoe-Missouria tribe is currently seeking grant funding for these projects.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Britny (they/them) reports for StateImpact Oklahoma with an emphasis on science and environment.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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