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Research shows climate change may enable Alaska to grow more of its own food

Published: Mar. 30, 2022 at 7:21 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Farmers in Alaska know that it can be hard to grow in the state’s climate, but as the climate rapidly warms in the far north, that could change.

Climate change could enable Alaska to grow more of its own food. Agriculture is one area in which climate change may actually bring some benefit to the state, but not without stumbling blocks and uncertainties.

Nancy Fresco, at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has worked with other scholars as well as farmers to begin investigating the state’s agricultural future.

“It’s not weird at all to say that there might be positive impacts and I think to some degree that might be why this particular study has drawn a lot of attention,” Fresco said. “Because people are very concerned about climate change, but they’re also interested to think about something where the change might be not entirely negative.”

What they’ve done is taken global climate change models, but downscaled them to the local level, followed by getting insights from farmers growing vegetables for local markets. The research suggests that planning for future decades may be crucial for keeping Alaska fed and economically stable.

According to the Alaska Food Policy Council, only 5% of the food consumed in Alaska is grown or raised here. That leaves Alaskans vulnerable to supply chain disruptions when even a single barge fails to arrive or one road is blocked, which is why growing food becomes increasingly important.

“There’s lots of room for expansion and I think not only do people like locally grown produce but people have become a bit more aware about what can happen when supply chains don’t come through,” Fresco explained.

The climate modeling the researchers performed “suggests a dramatically changing future for Alaska crops by 2100, with frost-free seasons extending not just by days, but by weeks or months,” Fresco wrote in an article detailing the work. The coldest winter days, the research found, could potentially become 10-15 degrees less extreme.

But an increase in warmer days could also lead to challenges farmers haven’t seen before. Janet Dinwiddie, the owner of Pioneer Peak Farm, said there’s a variety of concerns that come with a warmer farming season. One is the risk of new pests being introduced to farmlands when items are shipped to Alaska from the Lower 48.

“A lot of the variety that we pick to grow are specifically selected after years and years of research from us and others in this area that we know will do well up in here because of cooler temperatures or the shorter summers,” Dinwiddie said. “And so if we have a really hot summer there’s always a chance that either things will bolt quickly or they just don’t thrive much well because they were specifically planted as a cool weather-type crop.”

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