A changing climate means more money spent on infrastructure in Alaska

The midnight sun shines across sea ice along the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic...
The midnight sun shines across sea ice along the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Saturday, July 22, 2017. (AP Photo/David Goldman)(David Goldman | AP)
Published: Jan. 5, 2021 at 11:19 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Polar opposites, that’s a descriptive characteristic on how to describe the summer of 2019 and 2020 in much of Alaska. While 2019 saw record heat and one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, 2020 was a fairly quiet year. Even amidst the seemingly quiet weather year, changes are underway in the Arctic which Alaska climate specialist Rick Thoman says will heavily impact the state’s future budget.

“The state’s gonna spend a lot of money on combating coastal erosion,” Thoman said. “Where it threatens communities, where it threatens infrastructure. The state is going to spend a lot of money on road maintenance.”

This comes as melting sea ice allows for more open waters, which essentially becomes a bathtub of heat. This has a domino effect of melting permafrost, villages forced to relocate due to erosion and continuous repairs of roads due to the deepening active layer of thawing permafrost.

A statewide threat assessment published in partnership with the University of Fairbanks and the Army Corps of Engineers in 2019 mentioned 54 communities that were under the greatest threat from either thawing permafrost or erosion.

Communities most at risk for erosion in AlaskaCommunities most at risk for thawing permafrost in AlaskaCommunities most at risk for both
EmmonakBrevig MissionHuslia
KwigillingokKaktovikSaint Michael
Lime VillageKongiganakUtqiagvik
Nelson LagoonNightmute
Port heidenNoorvik
ShismarefNunam Iqua
UnalakleetPoint Lay
Toksook Bay

In an interview with Alaska’s News Source, Thoman said that it’s pretty easy to forget what sea ice in Alaska used to be like unless your life depended on it as many coastal villages do. While a changing climate is leading to significant changes in the state, it’s also leading to more robust fire seasons that could impact future tourist seasons.

Thoman pointed to 2019 as an example of just how smoky and hazy it was across Southcentral and Southeast.

“You’re in no threat of burning up,” he said, “but the smoke is a real health hazard which can ultimately impact things like tourism and the economy.”

While wildfires will vary from year to year in the state, the Arctic was still on fire in 2020 largely driven by an intense heatwave that was leading to record fires in Siberia. According to Thoman, it was quite startling at just how long the warmth lasted in the Arctic last summer even though Alaska saw a significantly cooler year than in 2019.

“The escalator is on the way up!” Thoman emphasized. “Some years, some days, or even seasons like [last] year will be a bit cooler than the trend.”

He says that’s to be expected and that the variability in weather and climate isn’t going away in a warming world. Even amidst a cooler year last year, Thoman pointed out that Alaska still saw nearly 100 record highs set in the state, with the vast majority of those as record highs. While data provided by the National Weather Service show that Southcentral finished 2020 on par with an average year in regards to temperature, portions of the Slope saw another top 10 warmest year due to the lack of ice that is no longer there.

A large reason much of Alaska saw a seemingly cooler year was due to the bitter cold that enveloped the state in January and February of last year and even then he says that was a pretty low bar for the state.

“We’ll continue to have times like this,” Thoman said in reference to 2020, “but the long-term trend, the decade scale, the generational scale is up.”

He points to all of this being a big reason why there will likely be more money spent to combat issues of thawing permafrost that continues to smolder year after year.

In December of 2020, the Arctic Report Card was released detailing a lot of what Arctic nations continue to see year after year. It’s important to highlight that according to Thoman, Alaska accounted for more than ten percent of the authors in the report.

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