On the day the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations publicly revealed its special report warning of an impending global-warming catastrophe, the daily temperature in Alaska’s largest city was 9 degrees above normal, and the string of days on which the temperature had failed to even once reach the nightly normal low had stretched to more than a month.
The two events may or may not be related. Weather is highly variable as is well illustrated by the extremes recorded in Anchorage on Oct.8 over the decades: a high of 64 in 2006 and a low of 17 in 1965.
What is not variable is the reality associated with shifting environments, and that reality is that in every change there are losers, and there are winners. The IPCC report detailed the big losses that can be tied to an estimated 1.5 degree Centigrade (2.7 degree F) increase in the global temperature as early as 2030:
Droughts, floods, hurricanes, melting glaciers, rising seas, water shortages, falling agricultural production, acidifying seas, heat-related deaths, increasing poverty and more.
Alaska is at the front of both these downsides and the far-less-often discussed upsides. Nobody in the 49th state has been complaining about an Anchorage September that ended 6.4 degrees (3.6 degrees C) above the norm.
Many, however, are worrying about 31 rural, predominately Native villages that the U.S. General Accounting Office more than a decade ago described as “facing imminent threats” from rising sea levels or river erosion.
“At least 12 of the 31 threatened villages have decided to relocate—in part or entirely—or to explore relocation options,” the 2009 report said. “(But) federal programs to assist threatened villages prepare for and recover from disasters and to protect and relocate them are limited and unavailable to some villages.”
Little has changed since then with the costs of relocating villages having proven prohibitive. The U.S. Congress this year awarded Newtok, a community of 355 on the Ningliq River near the edge of the Bering Sea in far Western Alaska, $15 million to begin moving.
But that’s less than 15 percent of the more than $100 million the relocation is expected to cost. The more than $280,000 per resident expense has led some to question the move given that even after the relocation Newtok will remain a community with no real economic base.
A Native subsistence village about 500 miles from Anchorage, Newtok offers few cash-paying jobs. The number-crunching website City-Data says more than 41 percent of Newtok residents live at or below the poverty level. Per capita income in 2016 was reported as $8,565.
The 2010 Census found half the population was under the age of 19. Males outnumbered females three to two. The media age was 20.2
“The majority of village students in all grades lag behind their peers in the district and around the state on Alaska’s reading and math proficiency tests,” The Atlantic’s Mareesa Nicosia wrote after visiting Newtok in 2016. “Many students don’t consider leaving the village for college, often because they’re relied upon to help care for elderly relatives or siblings.
“Newtok is legally a dry town, but alcoholism and drug abuse is widespread. School officials say it’s not unusual for parents to leave their children to look after each other while they drink away their annual permanent fund dividend check….”
Newtok struggles to survive, but the residents of the village, like the residents of most Alaska villages, love their hometown and want to save it, and in a state where rural traditions are cherished, that matters.
Thus both state and federal officials have tried to find ways to preserve Newtok and other villages threatened by low-lying locations close to the sea or along constantly meandering rivers.
If the IPCC prediction of significantly higher water as early as 2030 is correct, time might be running out for those rescue efforts.
Greening the Arctic
But global warming isn’t all doom and gloom in the north. After 2016 set a state record for warmth, the Northwest Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported “the 2016 (barley) crop was valued at $1,196,000, up from the 2015 value of $796,000.
“Value of the 2016 (oat) crop, at $274,000, compares with $179,000 in 2015….Value of production of all hay at $10,200,000 was up $2,800,000 from the previous year. ”
Agriculture is today a tiny industry in the 49th state, but there were those who once dreamed big, among them the revered late Gov. Jay Hammond.
“Alaska is tapping its oil wells for a second product — bountiful cropland — to ensure a continuing harvest long after the oil runs out,” the Christian Science Monitor reported in 1980. “Over the past 18 months, forests have been stripped and converted into rich fields of grain.
“The payoff, said bearded Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond on a visit to Chicago, is that with this fall’s harvest his state has joined the grain export business. The first harvest from 14,000 acres is out doing all predictions, and Governor Hammond expects that more than 10,000 tons of barley will be shipped to customers in Asia this year.
“Hammond said this first success means the state will speed up plans to develop 20 million acres of land that recent studies indicate are suitable for farming. The state is committed to converting 500,000 acres to farming by 1990 — at an estimated cost of $150 million.”
The barley project turned into a boondoggle and Hammond’s dream of what the Monitor headlined as the “new bonanza – vast amber waves of grain” died, but Hammond might have just been a man ahead of his time.
Alaska salmon production, meanwhile, has benefited from warming since the 1970s, although there is considerable debate as whether further warming will continue to support large runs or diminish them.
On the history, scientists agree.
“Salmon stocks from Alaska have been highly productive since the 1976 regime change in the North Pacific, an estimated three times more productive than in the 1946-75 period,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “The periods of increased salmon production correspond to an eastward shift of the Aleutian Low pressure system which produces…warming of the surface waters in the Gulf of Alaska.”
Mason Bryant, a fisheries researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, summed the debate going forward in a look at Southeast Alaska salmon a decade ago.
“Many of the predicted outcomes from scenarios for climate change are not favorable
for anadromous salmonids,” he wrote. “However, some may be positive. In several instances, the outcome is not known and may depend on interacting events. In all cases, the magnitude is speculative. It is highly unlikely that there will be a wholesale extirpation of salmon stocks in Southeast Alaska. All anadromous species found in Southeast Alaska are also found in more southern locations with thermal regimes that might be expected in southeast Alaska under most predictions of climate change.”
Most climate models show Southeast becoming more like the Pacific Northwest as the planet warms and Anchorage becoming more like the Alaska Panhandle.
Offering predictions on where to live, reporter Jennifer Kingson wrote, “forget most of California and the Southwest (drought, wildfires). Ditto for much of the East Coast and Southeast (heat waves, hurricanes, rising sea levels). Washington, D.C., for example, may well be a flood zone by 2100, according to an estimate released last week.
“Instead, consider Anchorage. Or even, perhaps, Detroit.
“‘If you do not like it hot and do not want to be hit by a hurricane, the options of where to go are very limited,’ said Camilo Mora, a geography professor at the University of Hawaii and lead author of a paper published in Nature last year predicting that unprecedented high temperatures will become the norm worldwide by 2047.
‘The best place really is Alaska,’ he added. ‘Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.'”
Or maybe the next Silicon Valley.
Some in the Alaska tourism industry are already talking about recognizable growth in the “shoulder seasons” of summer driven by national perceptions that “Seward’s Icebox” is becoming a warmer, friendlier place to visit in May and September.
The latter, many in Anchorage would argue, turned out to be the best month of 2018 with an average daily high temp near 64 degrees – more than 8 degrees above normal – and less than nine-tenths of an inch of rain – more than two inches less than normal.
What was missing? The four-tenths inch of snow that is the norm for the state’s largest city sometime in the month.
One of Alaska’s few growth industries, tourism has been on a steady upward trend from approximately 1.5 million, May-September visitors in 2010 to just shy of 2 million last year, according to a study prepared for the Alaska Travel Industry Association.
Almost 60 percent of them arrive on cruiseships, according to the study done by McDowell Group, and they don’t clamber aboard to shiver their way north.
Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concedes global warming is likely to bring “increased tourism,” along with longer growing seasons and “access to natural resources that are currently inaccessible due to ice cover,” but stresses the pitfalls of climate change and “new hardships for Native Alaskans.”
Along with those rising waters come melting permafrost, which can turn the ground to goo beneath homes and roads in Central and Arctic Alaska; risks of insect infestations and wildfires as summer temperatures rise; new diseases; and shifts in wildlife populations due to habitat changes that started decades ago.
Shrubs have been steadily moving north and west in the state to take over tundra with forests eventually following behind to displace the shrubbery. The same plant succession has been going on as shrubs and eventually trees climb higher and higher into the Alaska mountains.
Loss of tundra habitat, according to the EPA, could lead to declines in caribou numbers, though there has been no real sign of that yet. To date the most obvious wildlife changes have been the movements of moose north and west with expanding shrub habitats, and booming bear populations in areas of high salmon abundance.
But there is no denying a lot of bad things could happen if warming continues and Alaska becomes more like what the other states are now, though the 49th state still has a long way to go.
And Anchorage, which sits at the head of Cook Inlet, is in the warmer part of Alaska. The average annual temperature for Fairbanks is 27.55 degrees. It would take a massive warm up beyond anything the IPCC imagines for it to become anything like the rest of America.
But that’s not impossible.
During the long ago Cretaceous Period when dinosaurs ruled the earth for 79 million years, the National Park Service calculates the average annual temperature in Denali National Park and Preserve was near 51 degrees, about the same as Seattle today.
Denali, meanwhile, is today as cold as Fairbanks.