Houses, seen on Aug. 2, 2022, teeter on the edge of an Utqiagvik bluff that is being rapidly eroded by permafrost thaw. The house on the right has been abandoned. At the base of the bluff are SuperSacks filled with sand, placed there as part of the effort to hold back ocean waves and slow down erosion. Climate change presents serious threats to Alaska's built environment, the Fifth National Climate Assessment says. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Alaska is warming at two or three times the U.S. rate, with impacts ranging from individuals’ health and safety to the military security of the nation, according to a new federal report.
Among the most profound impacts of climate change in Alaska are threats to the built environment, which is now much more costly to maintain, the report said.
“Much of Alaska’s infrastructure was built for a stable climate, and changes in permafrost, ocean conditions, sea ice, air temperature, and precipitation patterns place that infrastructure at risk,” the report said. “Further warming is expected to lead to greater needs and costs for maintenance or replacement of buildings, roads, airports, and other facilities.”
Livelihoods and the overall Alaska economy are being undermined by climate change, but economic diversification can offset some of those losses, the report said. While climate change “has contributed to the collapse of major fisheries and is undermining many existing jobs and ways of life,” Alaskans are demonstrating some creativity in response, the report said. It cited growing activity in renewable energy and energy-efficient construction and alternative food production from agriculture and mariculture as some examples of creative responses.
Climate change is exacerbating human health risks because its effects are more acute in rural areas that tend to be underserved, the report said. It cites areas that lack running water or full sanitation services as particularly vulnerable.
National security is affected because Alaska’s numerous military installations are being damaged or at risk of damage from the same climate change forces that threaten the rest of the built environment – permafrost thaw, flooding, erosion and other physical disruptions.
As the only Arctic U.S. state, Alaska is also at the forefront of security concerns that arise from an Arctic Ocean with less sea ice and more maritime activity, the report said. Notably, that increased maritime activity is from Russia and the People’s Republic of China. In the Arctic, Russia is building new military sites and rebuilding old sites, and China has increased its Arctic presence as well. That presence extends to encroachment on fishing grounds. “In Alaska, recent concerns include PRC and Russian naval operations in the US exclusive economic zone; illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing especially in the Bering Sea; and marine debris,” the report said.
Local and regional efforts to address climate change are underway in Alaska, but the challenges are big and will incur high costs, the Alaska chapter concludes.
“The breadth of adaptation needed around the state will require substantial investment of financial resources and close coordination among agencies, including Tribal governments,” it said. “The effectiveness of adaptation planning and activities can be strengthened by addressing intersecting non-climate stressors, prioritizing the needs of the communities and populations experiencing the greatest impacts, building local capacity, and connecting adaptation efforts to economic and workforce development.”
Along with its chapter on Alaska, the report has a chapter on climate change impacts to Indigenous peoples and their responses. That chapter includes additional information about Alaska conditions, such as loss of access to areas used for subsistence harvests and communities’ plans for partial or complete relocation because of coastal erosion.
On a national level, the report cited a $150 billion-a-year cost from extreme weather events that are linked to climate change.
The report will be discussed in detail at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
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