White House climate assessment paints a challenging picture for Alaska’s future
The White House on Tuesday released the latest version of its National Climate Assessment. The report outlines the increasing threats the country faces due to rising temperatures and the gaps that still exist for addressing those problems.
Northern latitudes are more vulnerable to temperature increases due to climate change. That means global warming is occurring at a faster pace in the United States compared to the rest of the planet on average. But the rate of warming is more than double in parts of Alaska compared to the Lower 48.
Average temperatures have increased across the state since 1971, the report says, and in northern Alaska, those increases can be up to 6.2°F (3.4° Celsius). That’s up to 2.6 times the rate of change in the Lower 48.
The state does not just face warming temperatures. Record-breaking droughts, sea ice loss, reduced snowpack, permafrost thaw, increasingly destructive wildfires and changing patterns of windstorms are among the litany of other climate-related impacts.
The White House report contains a chapter on Alaska with several key messages about the effects of climate change in the state. For example, it found that existing health disparities in Alaska are exacerbated by climate change.
“In rural Alaska especially, underserved communities often face food and water insecurity, inadequate sanitation, overcrowding in homes, limited transportation options, limited medical access, and significant geographical isolation,” the report said. “People living in such settings are disproportionately impacted by climate change and have limited options to respond to additional disturbances.”
The report acknowledged that climate impacts have been affecting the ability to dry and store food in traditional ways, which could lead to negative health effects.
As many in the Nome region experienced this summer, increasingly wet weather inhibits drying of fish and meat. Meanwhile, new threats like harmful algal blooms can affect human, marine mammal and seabird health.
Rural Alaskans also face threats from emerging diseases. Tick species are starting to spread into the state and rabies outbreaks have been seen in Western Alaska. Both phenomena may have connections to changing environmental conditions.
Improving health surveillance, environmental surveillance healthcare access statewide could increase resilience to these threats, the report found.
The assessment also found that many livelihoods, especially those that depend on natural resources like fisheries, are at risk around the state, and that economic diversification will be increasingly important for many communities.
Another point was that Alaska’s built environment is only going to get more expensive. This is especially true for rural communities. Over the next 50 years, Alaska Native communities will see an estimated $4.8 billion in costs to infrastructure from environmental threats, 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. Planning for further change and greater attention to climate trends and changes in extremes can help improve infrastructure resilience around Alaska.”
Climate change is also threatening the security of the region, in several senses. As sea ice coverage shrinks in regions like the Bering Strait, vessel traffic is increasing. That’s happening in the context of increased competition with China and tension with Russia, the report said. An increase in offshore activities could increase the risk of accidents and spills.
The assessment highlighted other aspects of security at the community level. Changing ice conditions will make it riskier for hunters to travel. Meanwhile, cultural practices—including practices around food, like harvesting salmon—are “vital to well-being and security throughout Alaska but are often overlooked or minimized in fisheries management and in research on climate change and ecosystems,” the report said.
The report also addressed the challenges Alaska’s communities face in adapting to these changes, an effort that requires a lot of investment and coordination between various entities.
“To achieve widely needed climate adaptation, communities must navigate a complex system of siloed federal agencies,” the report said. “Overlapping local, borough, state, and federal jurisdictions can create confusing or conflicting policy directives and impede local adaptation efforts.
Complex governance and resource management systems, many of which are imposed on Tribes through colonization, create challenges to adaptation efforts, which are most effective if they are timely, equitable, and community led.”
Communities with strong collaboration among governing entities—that are also directly involved in producing data to understand the problems they face—may be better able to respond to climate change impacts.
The leaders of the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) in the U.S. House of Representatives said the report “paints a sharper picture of how the climate crisis is unfolding in America.”
“This report shows that in 2023 alone, we set a record number of climate disasters that cost over $1 billion,” the SEEC leadership said in a statement. “These events are now happening every three weeks on average, as compared to once every four months back in the 1980s, when adjusted for inflation. Yet it also shows, thanks to our clean energy investments, annual U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 12% between 2005 and 2019, with a corresponding drop in wind and solar energy costs by 70% and 90% respectively over the last decade.”
Even so, the report itself says that these improvements aren’t enough to make national and international climate targets. The assessment says that U.S. net greenhouse gas emissions would have to decline by more than 6 percent per year on average to hit net zero by 2050.
Earlier this month, an ex-NASA scientist also delivered a dire warning that emissions need to be cut more drastically to avoid hitting a climate benchmark. James Hansen, who warned Congress about global warming in the 1980s, claims in his latest study that Earth was on track to become 2.7 °F (1.5°C) warmer on average than it was in pre-industrial times during the 2020s. This was the number nearly every country on the planet agreed to try to stay under when they signed the Paris climate agreement in 2015.
When the global average hits that mark, the Seward Peninsula is likely to be more than 5°F warmer than the pre-industrial average, according to the projections included in the White House’s assessment. At that level of warming, the region will also see much wetter conditions. Precipitation will rise between 10 and 15 percent, according to the assessment.