Alaska communities must adapt as climate change transforms state, federal report says

The Nunalleq dig site located just off the coast of the Bering Sea, close to Quinhagak. A portion of the site already eroded into the sea. (Photo by Katie Basile/KYUK)

Declining sea ice, thinning snowpack, thawing permafrost and other climate-driven changes are threatening the health, livelihoods and cultural practices of Alaskans across the state, according to a major new federal report.

“Choose any societal issue you want — climate change is having an effect,” said Henry Huntington, Arctic Science Director at the Ocean Conservancy and lead author for the report’s Alaska chapter. “And I would bet not a good one.”

The National Climate Assessment, produced every four years, is the federal government’s most exhaustive account of how climate change is affecting the U.S.

It finds that human-caused climate change, driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, is already affecting Alaska communities. The state is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world, and many places across the state have already experienced climate-driven catastrophes like storms, floods and wildfires.

While plans to adapt and build climate resilience are already underway across the state, the report finds these efforts will need significantly more funding, support and coordination to be effective. 

“Climate change continues to be a serious problem,” Huntington said. “We’ve got to act. But there are things that we can do.”

Here are three key takeaways for Alaska:

1. More public health challenges, especially in rural communities. 

Villages across the state already face public health challenges like inadequate sanitation and overcrowded homes amid a severe housing shortage. Climate change will make those problems worse, the report finds. 

An estimated 3,300 households across the state lack access to running water and sewer systems, and according to the report a lack of indoor plumbing can contribute to the spread of disease, like the high incidence of COVID-19 cases among tribal communities nationwide. 

Eighty percent of the state sits on permafrost, which is thawing rapidly. Along with erosion, stronger storms and flooding linked to climate change, melting permafrost can undermine existing infrastructure. It can warp fragile water lines or compromise drinking water sources and sewage lagoons. Those same hazards can make it difficult to build new sanitation systems.

A massive storm battering Western Alaska brought floodwaters to the steps of the local school in Golovin on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Josephine Daniels)

The report highlights some innovative temporary solutions, like the Portable Arctic Sanitation System, a modular unit developed by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium that includes treated drinking water, a handwashing sink and a waterless toilet. This system, which has been piloted in five rural communities so far, can stop-gap when existing systems are damaged by climate hazards. But the authors highlight the need for more permanent solutions. 

Many rural communities also have severely limited housing stocks, which are being squeezed by climate hazards. Structural damage from floods or storms like ex-Typhoon Merbok can displace families, who face enormous repair costs and few alternative housing options in their villages. And more slow-moving disasters, like collapsing land caused by permafrost thaw or erosion, can further damage housing. In the worst cases, that’s forcing communities to relocate major infrastructure or even, as in the case of Newtok, more permanently.

Altogether, the report finds that Alaska Native communities face nearly $5 billion in climate-related infrastructure costs over the next 50 years. But the loss is not just monetary. 

“These effects, including a profound loss of connection to a landscape altered by climate change, can increase instances of mental illness and spiritual grief in affected populations,” the report says.

2. Threats to traditional foods and cultural practices. 

Daren Jennings loads up his skiff to deliver Bristol Bay salmon to Lower Yukon River communities. (Photo by Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

As climate change transforms ecosystems across the state, it is also disrupting Alaskans’ food security. The report catalogs numerous ways in which warming temperatures are threatening subsistence hunting and fishing and livelihoods statewide.

Stronger storms and the decline of sea ice in Arctic and sub-Arctic communities are making hunting more dangerous, the report notes. Warming is disrupting food webs for sea birds and shifting habitats or migration patterns for species like moose and caribou.

Changing weather conditions have made subsistence foods like wild berry harvests more unreliable. Both commercial and subsistence fisheries have faced collapse and closures in recent years linked to climate change. Warming waters have contributed to declines in king salmon on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and snow crab in the Bering Sea. 

More than 10 billion Bering Sea snow crabs disappeared in Alaska between 2018 and 2022 (Photo courtesy of Corey Arnold/Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers)

For commercial harvesters, those changes threaten thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue, the report finds.

For the state’s rural, predominantly Alaska Native communities, the threat is even more serious. Grocery prices in the state’s villages may already be more than twice as high as in its cities, and the report notes that 95% of rural residents rely at least in part on subsistence hunting and fishing for their food supply.

It’s becoming harder to harvest food, as thinning Arctic sea ice makes whale and seal hunting seasons shorter and more dangerous, and warming waters, especially around the Chukchi Sea, trigger harmful algal blooms that can make shellfish toxic. 

Even after harvest, climate change is threatening traditional ways of processing and storing food, as wetter weather makes it more difficult to dry fish and meats, and flood and melting permafrost compromise the traditional ice cellars in which many Alaskans store food

These changes to traditional foods and subsistence practices represent an especially profound cultural loss for many Alaska Native communities. 

3. Communities are planning for adaptation. Indigenous leadership, more funding and support can help put those plans into action.

Students in Anchorage rally in solidarity with the global climate strike, March 15, 2019. Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

But the report doesn’t just list climate impacts – it also highlights examples where Alaskans are taking action. Many municipal and tribal governments are already making plans to deal with Alaska’s changing climate, the authors write, and communities could make significant progress with more funding and support. 

At least four municipalities — Anchorage, Homer, Sitka and Juneau — and seven tribal governments, from the Nome Eskimo Community to the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, have developed local climate adaptation plans. More rural communities across the state are developing their own plans.

The climate assessment is meant, in part, to be a resource for people developing or improving upon those plans.

But putting those plans into action can be challenging, the report says, especially for smaller communities. In rural Alaska villages, local governments often lack the funding, expertise or staff to plan for climate impacts. And the same societal challenges that are made worse by climate change — things like food and water insecurity, substandard housing and limited health care — can often limit a community’s ability to pursue climate adaptation. 

“But these aren’t in isolation. It’s not that we have to choose climate change or something else,”  Huntington said. “A lot of the things that we want to do can have many benefits in addition to helping make us more climate ready.”

Successful adaptation planning, the report emphasizes, involves a holistic approach, one that takes a includes collaboration between Western scientific approaches and Indigenous traditional knowledge holders. The authors highlight the Alaska Arctic Observatory and Knowledge Hub, which includes Inupiaq experts in climate research and environmental monitoring, as an example of how to do this. 

Still, political will can be a limitation for climate adaptation. “Support for climate adaptation varies among communities,” the report says. “And adaptation has not been a consistent priority for the state government.” 

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has long questioned the scientific consensus that human-caused carbon emissions are driving climate change, and disbanded a climate change task force convened by his predecessor. 

And while the federal government is dedicating more and more funding toward addressing climate change, the report finds that Alaska communities struggle to access that money, in part because they often compete with bigger communities across the nation.

But the report says securing more money and increasing collaboration and coordination between many different governments and agencies is the only way to create a brighter future for the state. 

“Together, these efforts address climate change and intersecting societal challenges in ways that begin to lay a foundation for a just and prosperous Alaska,” the report reads. 

Previous articleWisdom gone wild | Line One: Your Health Connection
Next articleWith Anchorage schools remote again, another storm hitting Southcentral Alaska