SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Warming can harm Alaska's economy in many ways
Anchorage Daily News


April 14, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Alaska's warming trend could hit the state's economy on many fronts - from fishing and oil and gas exploration, to road repair and expanding agriculture.

Alaska scientists told the state's Climate Impact Assessment Commission that some of those economic consequences will build gradually over years. Others, like unexpected storms, are already hitting Alaska.

The commission, made up mainly of industry officials and chaired by state Rep. Ralph Samuels, R-Anchorage, was set up by the Legislature last May.

Until January, the commission will be developing a complete overview of the likely impacts of climate change in Alaska and recommendations to reduce harm from the changes. Part of that involves looking at the effects on Alaska's economy and on communities.

Scientists told the commission of some unexpected consequences of climate change.

For example, in recent years, pilots flying over the ocean have become more wary of navigating through clouds, said James Partain, chief of the National Weather Service's environmental and scientific services division.

Clouds that posed no danger in the past because they were composed of ice crystals are now composed of cold water, he said.

The cold water can freeze on a plane, causing failure. Either the pilot has to find a way to duck the cloud or it's a "no-go" event, meaning that a flight is canceled.

On land, the financial costs of climate change could be staggering. A new study published by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research estimates that maintaining roads and bridges damaged by melting permafrost or floods will cost billions over the next 30 years.

Engineers can fix the problems as they occur, but the changing climate presents a planning conundrum, said Orson Smith, director of UAA's School of Engineering.

He said engineers can't predict how the coastline will change due to the increasing storm damage. And they don't know how melting permafrost will affect a specific road or bridge.

The engineers need to obtain better information on how changes to the land and water could affect the state's infrastructure, Smith said.

He told the commission about one idea: To reserve one percent of the budget of major public works projects in Alaska to monitor changes. That way, engineers could have better information with which to plan their projects, he said.

North Slope oil companies have been dealing with climate warming since 2003. The winter oil-exploration season was cut in half due to warming temperatures and environmental restrictions that curtailed travel on the tundra, state officials said.

Concerned about the economic consequences of reduced exploration, the state Department of Natural Resources studied the damage caused by drilling equipment between 2003 and 2005. Its research showed the tundra was more resistant to harm than previously thought, and last year the state opened North Slope exploration sites the earliest it had in a decade.

While some things could become more costly, river and ocean shipments could become more economical, Smith said. For example, he said, less Arctic sea ice could lead to increased ore shipments from mines such as the Red Dog zinc mine near Kotzebue.

The shrinking of the Arctic Ocean's ice cap could also create shipping lanes and make Alaska's natural resources more accessible to Europe, Smith said.

But reduced sea ice is causing massive damage in coastal communities because it no longer provides a buffer to damaging ocean waves, said Partain from the National Weather Service.

It doesn't take a scientist to notice that, now, if the wind blows at 30 knots in Barrow, you need a gravel berm to protect the roads. That wasn't the case in the past, Partain said.

Not only are coastal Native villages at risk, but the sea-level rise is causing saltwater intrusion in low-lying rivers in the Yukon-Kuskowkim region, he said.

The National Weather Service is also recording more variable and unpredictable weather. Though Anchorage and Fairbanks had near record snow years this winter, the snow is melting very rapidly, Partain said.

Rapid melt off doesn't penetrate the ground but instead flushes into the streams and rivers. That won't be good for the state's fire season, he said.

Fisheries are another economic engine that could get swamped. Alaska's fisheries provide half of the country's seafood.

The extent of sea ice, and possibly wind, has a major impact on the types of species in the Bering Sea and where they live, said Mike Sigler, a Juneau-based fishery assessment scientist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

It appears that some commercially important fish species like flounder, cod and pollock are expanding north, and crab habitat is shrinking, Sigler said. Seals, walruses and birds that forage or use sea ice in specific spots are encountering problems, he said.


Contact Elizabeth Bluemink at ebluemink(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by
Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

Publish A Letter on SitNews
        Read Letters/Opinions

Contact the Editor

SitNews ©2007
Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska