Alaska, the largest state in the US, has coastlines on the Arctic and North Pacific oceans and on the Chukchi and the Bering Seas. This gives it proximity to more national capitals in the northern hemisphere than most of the other states in the US. It’s also the US’ closest point to the Arctic Circle.

Climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world: its effects are stronger there, especially shifts in temperature and ice cover. Certainly and in many ways, Alaska is ground zero for Climate Change. Climate change is in part responsible for the shrinking Arctic sea ice, giving climate scientists vexations about the future of its dependents—its animals.

Columbia Glacier in Alaska, one of the most rapidly changing glaciers in the world. Image Credit: Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon for NASA

A Remarkable Symbiosis

For many generations, Alaska was a picture of stability and ordinary seasonal changes dictated by nature. It’s this kind of stability that allowed Alaskan residents to live out their unique way of life depending on the vast tundra and the Arctic sea for their survival, and by their eco-friendly lifestyle, ensuring that man and nature lived symbiotically.

For over ten thousand years, the land and the sea surrounding Alaska have provided its residents with valuable resources. The bowhead whale, central to Alaskan culture and Caribou, is part of the unique treasure of resources.

Map of permafrost occurrence in Alaska. Credit: Alaska Office, Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA

Essential to Alaska is permafrost, ground that’s made up of soil, rocks, and frozen water. Permafrost forms when the extent of winter frosting exceeds the extent of summer defrosting. In Alaska, permafrost has been in frozen form for generations.

In recent years, however, communities in Alaska have started grappling with splitting walls and collapsing houses as this permafrost thaws. Instead of storing carbon, the permafrost is releasing methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it warms and thaws. Scientists now worry it might become a significant source of emissions enough to warrant urgent global attention.

Previously solid ground can become unstable due to thawing permafrost, and people’s homes as well as important infrastructure can be put at risk. In the last few weeks in Arctic Russia (Siberia), the thawing permafrost has caused a major pollution incident. A Russian storage tanker oil spill has polluted vast areas of the Russian Arctic.

Clean-up operations could cost as much as $140 million and environmental restoration could take up to 10 years. This adds to the growing concerns the Arctic could be the epicenter of runaway global warming.

Alaska has been an amazing symbiosis for thousands of years! Humans, animals, plants, the sea, and land have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. This is what has kept permafrost unchanged for so long. Just as it enables plants to receive moisture for nourishment, the plants also ensure its sustainability by providing insulation against warm summer temperatures and sunlight. But this is changing.

Surprisingly, many Alaskans see the thawing permafrost as a “seasonal headache”. Each summer, major infrastructure like highways requires repairs following the occurrence of “frost waves”. However, with private companies frequently repairing roads towards extraction sites, and the Alaskan government repairing public ones using the Alaska Permanent Fund, many Alaskan residents do not feel concerned enough about climate change and its costs. Are they burying their heads in the sand?

A Climate Change Transplant

In what has been termed one of the earliest forms of Climate Change Transplants, residents of Newtok, a small village on Alaska’s West coast have recently relocated to Mertarvik, a newly constructed village, as climate change takes its toll.‌‌

This beautiful picture has been changing fast, with disturbing implications for Alaska. In what has been termed one of the earliest forms of Climate Change Transplants, residents of Newtok, a small village on Alaska’s West Coast, have recently relocated to Mertarvik, a newly constructed village, as climate change takes its toll. Newtok residents have had to embrace life-altering change, even as uncertainty remains regarding how long they will be in their new home.

Newtok isn’t the only village that has been affected. Barrow residents, like most Alaskans, rely on permafrost to preserve meat and other foods for long periods. But there is a growing disquiet that increases in temperature and the melting permafrost will no longer permit this.

Alaskan residents are already seeing snowmelt earlier, drier landscapes, and more insect outbreaks and wildfires. Arctic summer sea ice is receding faster than previously projected. And more changes continue to creep in on Alaskans.

The Centrality of Oil in Alaska’s Economy

Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, near Fairbanks. Credit: Flickr/Maureen

The need for fossil fuels by the US to meet the rising demands for electricity and gas couldn’t leave Alaska undisturbed! And there were growing needs for a variety of amenities by Alaskan residents too. This has consequently led to oil corporations like ConocoPhillips commencing massive oil and gas exploration and production.

Oil contributes most of Alaska’s revenue and the Alaskan communities like Newtok and Barrow are aware and appreciative of this. Certainly, oil revenue has led to schools being set up, and the activities of oil companies have provided numerous job opportunities. Some Alaskan communities like Nuiqsut have gotten access to gas for heating their homes during the winter at an affordable rate: $25 per month.

On the whole, Alaskans have benefited greatly from oil. However, this has come at a cost to the land and other resources that are vital to their existence.

Even as Alaskans have benefited from oil, yet they have experienced first hand the disasters that have resulted from the activities of oil companies as well as the use of fossil fuels by the rest of us. These activities are contributing to climate change and, consequently, significant physical anomalies. While the majority of Alaskans do not dispute the science, they do want to have their cake and eat it; they want to fight global warming while still drilling for oil.

How will they do that? So far it’s been hard to tell. At present, the economics take the day and there is still no indication that this will change in the near future. Oil companies persist in their activities even when the melting permafrost in some areas is making it difficult for them to do so, and they seem to have the government’s support, both local and federal.

The Elephant in the Room

Although Alaskan residents can see the devastating effects of climate change, there is a small portion of the population that still does not buy the irrefutable science that human activity is responsible for global warming. Some even credit negative emotions like envy and anger as the cause. And then there are those who acknowledge climate change is happening but believe it is a purely natural phenomenon.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of America's last untouched pieces of wilderness. The Trump Administration is rushing to open it up to oil companies.

Still, an important number of Alaskans want gas and oil extraction to continue, despite knowing the consequences. They mostly consider that resource extraction should stop when it stops being profitable. Historically and in the last few decades, Alaska has focused almost entirely on resource extraction instead of diversifying its economy.

Even those who have chosen to take a stand against further oil exploration on the fresh territory struggle to find any real alternative sources of revenue, yet they know that they must take action.

Economic diversity in Alaska is not impossible, but it is hard to attain. One problem is 'brain drain'; the state has a small population yet it has one of America’s highest rates of outmigration. Another problem is the fact that Alaska eliminated taxes on businesses and individuals, except for some fees.

One asset that could be used to diversify the economy is the Alaska Permanent Fund, progressively built using revenues from oil and gas extraction. It is the state’s number one source of government funding today. Other potential economic sectors and opportunities include tourism (especially green tourism in National Parks, already significant in Alaska), and server farms (for cooling purposes.)

Conclusion

Climate change in Alaska is a gaping reality. Alaska’s climate refugees are a testament to this. It is, therefore, pertinent that all stakeholders in Alaska come together to pave a way for the future survival of the land and its inhabitants. Some initiatives like the formation of the Alaska Climate Action Leadership Team and its activities are a sign that things could change.

Some of its meetings have tabled discussions on building Alaskan communities’ capacity to recover from disasters, growing their ability to produce energy from sources that can’t be depleted, systematic and methodical processes to enable durable actions that look to the future, and specific actions to achieve these goals.

If all stakeholders were to participate meaningfully and with sincerity towards finding solutions that work—and implementing them—then there might be hope for the future!

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate Change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.