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Climate change studies show how Alaska hangs in balance

January 12th | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

If you thought it was a funny winter, you were right. The statewide average temperature in December was the warmest ever seen in recorded history, and it wasn't just a little warmer, it was a lot warmer.

The further north in Alaska you go, the more extreme the warmth was. Across most of the North Slope, every single day in December was above average. While southern Alaska was more moderate, the state as a whole still finished the month 2.1 degrees above normal. That may not sound like much, but climate watchers say it is extreme. Records are typically beat by tenths of a degree, they said.

On the heels of that news, the state released its most comprehensive examination of what all that warming, and other symptoms of climate change, are going to mean for Alaskans. It's no surprise to most living in rural Alaska that things are changing, and that it is causing problems. Waterways that used to be thoroughfares for winter travel are now unsafe. Hunting and fishing that used to depend on cold temperatures and a frozen landscape are now costing more and taking longer as alternate ways of getting to hunting grounds must be found. The report notes that Alaskans harvest 34 million pounds of wild foods a year, without which, Alaskans must find a way to purchase expensive, and often less nutritious, replacement foods.

But those impacts we think of readily are just the tip of the melting iceberg, the report says. They don't even begin to touch on the real-time costs of cleaning up after storms and repairing infrastructure. They don't factor in extreme wildfires or new diseases and viruses. They also don't touch on the incredible costs that will be incurred when the many communities on the edge of eroding coastlines must move.

The report, released by the state Division of Public Health, also outlined some factors that we might not consider right away when Alaskans think about the impacts of climate change, like worsening mental health, or "solastalgia" — anxiety and depression caused by unwanted environmental change. That might not seem like as big a deal as a village sliding into the sea, but consider the impact depression and substance abuse already has in Alaska, from dependence on social services to exacerbation of domestic violence and crime, and you start to see the hidden monster such conditions can create.

It's not easy to quantify the impacts of these changes, but when it comes to extreme weather events, the United States as a whole saw an unprecedented number of expensive weather and climate disasters in 2017. A report by the NOAA says that last year, the nation experienced 16 such disasters that cost more than $1 billion. Total losses were estimated at a record-breaking $306 billion, the report said. Most of that expense came from hurricanes, which cost a whopping $265 billion to clean up.

Perhaps more interesting, however, and applicable to Alaskans, is the discussion about the reverberating effects of these disasters on the economy. In the short term, insurance companies are reeling, but as people try to recover, individually, in so many different regions of the country at the same time, economists are predicting more resources will be diverted out of the economy. The idea that such disasters can be an economic stimulus is a myth, they say. As they continue, and insurance companies are betting they will, they will force an economic slowdown that will hit the nation where it hurts — the pocketbook.

Remembering that Alaska is the so-called canary in the coal mine of climate change, all these findings are individually sobering and cumulatively devastating. If Alaska is left to its own devices to clean up the climate-change-related mess that is coming, it will shatter an already fragile economy here. The only way our state stands a chance of maintaining its infrastructure and economic stability is if the nation as a whole develops something more proactive than disaster assistance as a way of adapting to the changes that are coming.

Unfortunately, the current administration is not likely to promote such a stance. It would undermine the credibility of the current pro-development push to, at the same time, accept responsibility for the economic impact of climate change.

Luckily, those who are watching the curve of climate change and the world's efforts to reduce carbon emissions have good news to share. The cost of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind have finally dropped to the point that it makes fiscal sense to individuals, companies and nations to start turning toward renewables and away from nonrenewable energy sources. At the same time, battery-storing technology is improving, too, allowing electric cars, for example, to be more viable than ever.

Some say that as climate change reaches a critical tipping point, so has the trend toward renewable energy sources. Hopefully, the two will balance each other out before Alaska finds itself on the wrong end of the teeter-totter.


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