Climate Corner: Baked Alaska?

Jul 15, 2023

Linda Eve Seth

“To the lover of wilderness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.” — John Muir, naturalist


Alaska is on the front lines of the climate crisis.

For many people climate change is still an abstract concept. They might experience hotter summers and strange weather patterns, but much of their lives are relatively unchanged. For others, like the Indigenous communities in northwestern Alaska, life is drastically different. The community’s traditional way of life and subsistence living is being threatened by rapidly melting sea ice coverage and a reduced hunting season.

Alaska is larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined. It is vast, remote, and still largely wild, with a land area of more than half a million square miles, and the longest coastline of any state. It is home to an estimated 100,000 glaciers. Its natural features include mountains, tundra, glaciers, lakes, and seas. But as Alaska’s climate is changing, the effects are widespread and sometimes dangerous, even beyond the state’s own borders.

Over the past 60 years, Alaska has actually warmed more than twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Average annual temperatures have increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit and average winter temperatures by 6 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, Arctic sea-ice is shrinking, glaciers are retreating, the shores are eroding, and the permafrost that underlays much of the state is melting. Record-breaking temperatures, rapidly melting ice, and huge wildfires are all impacting this vast, wondrous state. This reality threatens the security of the state and the entire country.

Rising temperatures may provide some benefits in Alaska, such as a longer growing season for agricultural crops, increased tourism, and access to natural resources that are currently inaccessible due to ice cover, like offshore oil. However, climate change also has adverse effects on many ecosystems and species, and is creating new hardships for Native Alaskans.

Alaska is home to some of the largest glaciers and fastest loss of glacier ice on Earth. Thawing ice, more severe storms, and wildfires are already risking public health, food and water security, and even spirituality and cultural traditions tied to the land. High temperatures are melting snow covers and glaciers. Permafrost is thawing and collapsing. Sea ice is disappearing.

Permafrost is frozen ground that is located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions. Eighty percent of Alaska’s surface lies atop permafrost. Permafrost temperatures in Alaska are rising. Thaw is already occurring in interior and southern Alaska, and will likely continue. Uneven sinking of the ground in response to permafrost thaw is predicted to add as much as $6 billion to the costs of buildings, pipelines, roads, and other infrastructure over the next 20 years.

The distribution, quality, thickness, and timing of ice on the ocean, lakes, and rivers drive nearly every aspect of life on Alaska’s Arctic coasts, from boating to whaling and seal hunting to the safety of fishing and foraging.

Climate change creates the perfect conditions for extreme wildfire seasons. Warm weather is arriving sooner and sooner in Alaska, increasingly breaking heat records. Ice and snow are melting earlier in the season, too, leaving plant life to dry out and act as tinder for bigger, more destructive fires. Wildfires in Alaska are expected to get more frequent and severe, and the amount of land burned is expected to double by the middle of this century — and then triple by the end of it.

Compounding the problems caused by climate shifts, historical policies of land allotment have forced some Alaska Native communities into areas that are extremely vulnerable to climate change, such as low-lying coastal deltas at risk of storm surges and floods. The cumulative effects of inadequate infrastructure, loss of access to traditional foods, food insecurity, threat of community relocation, impacts to water quality and quantity . . . have challenged the adaptive capacity of many Alaska Natives, particularly in rural areas.

Alaska is built for seasonal cold. Climate change is disruptive to its culture, modern housing, transportation in the vast roadless areas of the state, hunting and fishing, agriculture, and traditional food storage methods. The state’s extraordinary warmth of recent years brings stress, risk, and hardship to many…even beyond Alaska’s borders.

Baked Alaska – It’s what’s for dessert.

Until next time, be kind to your Mother Earth.