State report details potential health impacts of climate change

The village of Newtok can lose ten or twenty feet at a time to erosion. It had to switch drinking water sources, as the river threatens to drain the existing source. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

How will climate change affect health in Alaska? Dangerous travel conditions could cause more accidents, warmer temperatures could spread new diseases and the topsy-turvy weather could worsen mental health.

Those are some conclusions from a new state report, released Monday.

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The report, from the Alaska Division of Public Health, tries to predict the health impacts if current climate change forecasts hold true. (It’s based on the predictions for Alaska in the 2014 National Climate Assessment.)

Sarah Yoder is the lead author. She said she was a little taken aback by what they found.

“The surprise was just how broad, exactly, all these potential health impacts are,” Yoder said.

Those impacts range from infrastructure damage to the spread of new diseases. The report notes that thawing permafrost can disrupt water and sewer lines, undermine health clinics, and damage roads, making access to healthcare and basic sanitation more difficult. Extreme weather events could increase floods, mudslides, and avalanches. Thinner sea and river ice can make travel and subsistence hunting more dangerous. More wildfires can worsen air quality. Warmer temperatures could allow the spread of insects carrying Lyme disease or the West Nile Virus.

These are all predictions for the future. But state epidemiologist Joe McLaughlin said the future may already be here.

“We may in fact be already seeing some impacts of climate change here in Alaska, but the challenge is that many of these potential impacts have not been well-studied and definitively linked to climate change,” McLaughlin said.

Then there are the impacts on mental health, including “solastalgia.”

If that word doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. McLaughlin hadn’t heard the term before the research for this report. But he said, when he did stumble across it, he found it kind of perfect.

“When I describe to people in my community, people that I know, I help them put a word to what they’re feeling,” McLaughlin said. “They say, ‘Ah yeah, that’s it, that’s what I feel.’”

The report describes solastalgia as the “sense of loss” people experience because of “unwanted environmental changes” to their homes – disorienting shifts that can lead to anxiety and depression.

“Just talk to some of your friends and neighbors here in Anchorage,” McLaughlin said. “Just ask them, how do they feel about the last several winters?”

That’s solastalgia. On the more severe end, it can define the stress for an entire community facing relocation.

Ultimately, McLaughlin said, climate change is a different kind of public health challenge than something like a mumps outbreak.

“This is going to be a marathon,” he said. “Not a sprint.”

McLaughlin said the impacts of climate change will unfold over decades – but the time to start planning is now.

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Rachel Waldholz covers energy and the environment for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media, KTOO in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Before coming to Anchorage, she spent two years reporting for Raven Radio in Sitka. Rachel studied documentary production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and her short film, A Confused War won several awards. Her work has appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace, among other outlets. rwaldholz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8432 | About Rachel