National Climate Assessment Highlights Alaska Coastal Impacts

Erosion Along Alaska''s Arctic Coast - Photo by USGSThe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and United States Geologic Survey (USGS) have teamed up to release a national climate assessment report highlighting the effect climate change will have on the United States. Many of its comments directly speak to the impact of climate change to Alaska.

Titled Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities: A Technical Input to the 2013 National Climate Assessment, the 150 page report offers detailed discussions of how researchers believe climate change will effect the health and strength of coastal communities within the United States. Seventy-nine scientists contributed to this report for the National Climate Assessment, a report prepared for Congress every four years.

Co-author of the report, Virginia Burkett of the USGS says, “An increase in the intensity of extreme weather events such as storms like Sandy and Katrina, coupled with sea-level rise and the effects of increased human development along the coasts, could affect the sustainability of many existing coastal communities and natural resources.

Increasing Temperatures

The greatest driver of environmental change for coastal Alaska is temperature change. The predominance of sea ice and permafrost in the north makes Alaska very vulnerable to the effects of increased temperatures. A change of two degrees Celsius would change much of our state from being frozen to unfrozen. Melting permafrost and sea ice amplifies coastal erosion, increases flooding events and boosts the release of methane, a significant greenhouse gas.

Alaska has already seen dramatic examples of coastal erosion and the impact it is having on communities. Researchers have high confidence in their predictions for increased temperatures in the north. Some researchers have suggested higher temperatures increase the severity of storms, magnify storm surges and increase the ocean wave climate. The loss of sea ice definitely eliminates a protective coastal erosion barrier. The high cost of relocating coastal villages to safer locations seems inevitable.

A great deal of methane is tied up in Alaska’s permafrost. The melting and disturbance of our permafrost will accelerate the release of this primary greenhouse gas, compounding warming conditions that are causing problems for the Arctic.

Changes in Precipitation

Modeling of weather in the northern latitudes shows a trend for increased precipitation and agreement among the various models is highest for projection of increased precipitation in Alaska. Researchers also foresee an increase in the frequency of heavy precipitation events. One effect of more moisture is higher soil water content, increased permafrost temperatures and a reduction in the stability of permafrost along coastal Alaska.

Alaska is a coastal state that depends on harvesting its natural resources. Most communities in the state are located along or near the coast. Changes to estuaries and coastal wetlands impact vital fisheries. Rising sea level and increased shore erosion directly effects communities.

Climate change should be of concern to Alaskans. We see the evidence of this change everyday. A warming climate intensifies storm frequencies, increases rainfall, heightens storm surges, aggravates erosion, damages infrastructure and further melts permafrost. In the long run, none of these outcomes are good for the long-term health of the state. While the Coastal Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerabilities document is lengthy, it is well worth reading for those interested in a peek into the future.

Copyright 2013 by Alan Sorum

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