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State releases report on negative health impacts of climate change

January 12th | Tegan Hanlon, ADN Print this article   Email this article  

On Monday, the state Division of Public Health released the first comprehensive report about the adverse health impacts climate change could have on Alaskans.

The sweeping list of potential health implications include the introduction of new diseases; an increase in accidents; an increase in anxiety and depression; a worsening allergy season; and increasingly dangerous hunting and harvesting conditions limiting subsistence activity.

State health officials say the 77-page report is meant to raise awareness of how climate change could impact public health in a state where, over the past century, the air and water temperatures have warmed faster than the rest of the country.

"We wanted to get ahead of the potential health impacts of climate change in Alaska and make sure we could provide a big-picture perspective on what we can expect if the (National Climate Assessment) prediction models are accurate," said Dr. Joe McLaughlin, state epidemiologist at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

McLaughlin said the division started working on the report in 2015.

While there were analyses of the potential health impacts of climate change in certain Alaska communities, a detailed statewide report did not exist, said Sarah Yoder, lead author of the report and a public health specialist in the Environmental Public Health Program at the department.

A statewide report on how climate change could affect health is still rare in the U.S.

"This report is one of the only reports, really, nationwide that provides a statewide overview of the potential health impacts of climate change," Yoder said.

Because Alaska is the country's only Arctic state, the report said, Alaskans will likely face some climate change challenges that will differ from those in other states.

Potential risks

Here are just a few of the health impacts Alaskans can expect if the National Climate Assessment prediction models are "roughly" accurate, according to the report:

• Worsening mental health: Climate change can lead to "solastalgia" — the distress caused by unwanted environmental change. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder can also result from fires, floods, storm surges, thawing permafrost and coastal erosion, all of which are expected to increase with climate change.

• More accidents and injuries: The average annual precipitation is predicted to increase by 15 to 30 percent by 2100 in Alaska compared to 1971-1999. More precipitation could lead to more mudslides, debris flows and avalanches, causing more injuries and deaths. Car crashes may increase as thawing permafrost damages Alaska's roads, railroads, airstrips and trails. Thinning sea ice may also lead to more injuries or deaths if people become stranded or break through the ice.

• More wildfires: Wildfires are predicted to increase in size and intensity in Alaska, which could worsen air quality and increase the risk of lung and heart disease.

• West Nile Virus and ticks: Alaska has not recorded any locally acquired cases of West Nile Virus. But if temperatures increase, the virus may start getting transmitted here. As temperatures increase, the deer tick population may expand to Alaska as well.

• Longer pollen seasons: Warmer temperatures could lead to earlier and longer pollen seasons, perhaps worsening seasonal allergies and asthma.

• Damaged infrastructure: Coastal erosion, major storms and flooding could damage community drinking water, wastewater or stormwater systems, which could result in increases in waterborne diseases. Thawing permafrost, erosion, wildfires and floods could also make access to health clinics more challenging.

• Increasingly difficult hunting: Thinning sea ice is making hunting more dangerous. Increasing temperatures could also make storing and harvesting wild foods more difficult. Higher air temperatures could increase cases of foodborne botulism if foods are not properly prepared and stored in a way that prevents them from spoiling.

Affects on rural Alaskans

Rural Alaskans harvest about 34 million pounds of wild foods each year, James Fall, research director of the Division of Subsistence at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said in an interview.

Any threat to that food supply, he said, is a major problem. Climate change has already led to poor ice conditions, thawing permafrost and changing migration routes.

"One cannot understate the threat that these kind of rapid changes are having and could continue to have on especially rural communities in the state," he said.

In Utqiaġvik, the coastline is eroding, ice cellars are flooding and there's less and less sea ice, said Rosemarie Habeich, director of the North Slope Borough Department of Health and Social Services.

"It's overwhelming sometimes," she said. "It's scary when I think of it in terms of the enormity of it."

She said she believes the town is already seeing elements of depression and anxiety. People can't always do what they once did, she said, like hold bonfires and picnics on a nearby beach that has now disappeared, covered by the sea.

Yoder said climate change will impact Alaska communities in different ways. She and McLaughlin said they hope local communities will use the new report to prioritize the potential health impacts of climate change most relevant to them. For each impact, they said the communities should determine the expected timing and magnitude.

"Communities should prepare to help people cope with these changes," McLaughlin said.

Read the full report at dhss.alaska.gov.

This story first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News and is reprinted here with permission.

 

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