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Climate change from the front lines: How the conversation is evolving in the Arctic

November 19, 2017

By Ryan Cooper

Alaska’s Climate Change Roundtable focused on 4 major themes: mitigation, adaptation, research, and response

Climate change is a hot-button topic. Nowhere is that more so than in Alaska, where managing the environment—unstable permafrost, furious storms, and dynamic wildlife populations—is a regular part of our life. Recently, I was part of the State of Alaska’s Climate Change Roundtable in Anchorage. This forum brings together industry, government, non-governmental organizations, and Alaska Native organizations to develop a practical dialogue on climate change, focusing on solving challenges that fast-paced changes in the natural environment are posing to Alaskans.

Kivalina, Alaska, sits on an isolated barrier island and is subject to erosion from intense fall and winter storms along the northwest Alaska coast.

Our environmental services division has a deep history working with these topics. Alaska and Canada comprise a significant amount of the Arctic, and the best place to achieve collaborative solutions is in the North. I have spent a great deal of my career conducting primary research, working with subsistence communities, or permitting development. I work with resource extraction companies and environmental groups with the goal of mediating dialogue and providing objective research. We find clients face common challenges: inadequate infrastructure, logistics for remote locations, and a harsh natural environment. Living in Alaska, I’m really on the front lines of the climate change discussion, which can be most intense here, but remains a global conversation.

The collaboration evident at the Climate Change Roundtable is particularly relevant in a state that is facing its most significant economic contraction in decades. The discussion focused on four major themes: mitigation, adaptation, research, and response. Following are some key highlights.

Mitigation: A conservation discussion

Mitigation focuses on policy initiatives that encourage energy conservation and emission reduction. All parties at the Roundtable agreed that minimizing energy cost is an important component of life in the Arctic. Our conversation focused on using technology and efficiency improvements to increase the quality of life for communities and economic viability for development. Industry particularly likes the business case for decreasing energy needs, as logistics can cause fuel transportation to be a significant cost driver. This is particularly important in rural Alaska, where the cost of energy is often many times the national average.

Adaptation: Where’s the permafrost?

An important action item was to improve research on engineering specifications for the Arctic. For years, design and construction on permafrost has been premised on stability of geotechnical conditions at depth. These insulation and stability properties are changing, causing failures in infrastructure throughout the region. Roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure are subsiding. Updating engineering standards is technical and complex; and the benefits are diffuse and time delayed. That makes it difficult to build momentum. A state-led effort to improve specifications for their own projects could set the standard for producing long lasting infrastructure. A resilient future will require adaptation.

Research: ‘Starving for wisdom’

Baseline research is a key component to understanding the natural world. While everyone would like increased research funding, surprisingly the panelists agreed that funding isn’t the primary barrier. The central problem identified is much like Pulitzer Prize winner E.O. Wilson said: “we are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” Making applicable information available to the correct sources is not a simple task, particularly when bridging technical fields and incorporating generalists. Collaboration efforts are underway but research’s very characteristics (e.g. competitive funding, technical specificity, non-local experts) can increase barriers to solutions. One of the key points from the roundtable discussion was the need for continued funding of integrative efforts.

Seeding cotton grasses border a flooded polygonal wetland, with the Franklin Bluffs of the North Slope in Alaska in the background.

Response: Real-life projects

Throughout the Far North, we have multiple projects to demonstrate response. Cost is always the major hurdle for effective solutions. Two areas of focus where my colleagues and I have worked were used as examples during the Roundtable. They are front-line examples of what many Alaska communities are facing.

Challenge #1

Increased summer shipping is a reality throughout the Arctic. Typical safety and emergency response infrastructure simply does not exist if a cargo ship or cruise ship needs rescue. Permanent facilities are impractical due to the seasonal nature of the shipping lanes. As a result, emergency preparedness often falls on small communities without significant infrastructure.

The Response

I have been part of efforts organizing emergency plans for rural Alaska communities. Coordinating funding, establishing a response plan, and providing some formal guidance can be essential when time is of the essence.

Challenge #2

Wetland mitigation continues to be a major project cost, particularly when wetlands cover 43% of Alaska’s surface area (174 million acres).

The Response

I have been part of efforts to establish large wetland mitigation banks on the North Slope, protecting lands open for development. These efforts have included shorelines bordering the Beaufort Sea and the Colville River. These are important Teshekpuk caribou herd habitat and include areas the Audubon Society has named Global Important Bird Areas. The roundtable identified that additional wetland response alternatives are important, and we continue to advance the conversation about the best strategy forward.

Where we go from here

Sitting down with people that have different perspectives on an issue that affects us all is a productive first step to come together toward actionable projects. We may not solve “climate change” but we can certainly find common aspects we care about and find common solutions. The Roundtable will continue these discussions, which are particularly important in this economic environment.

Mitigation, adaptation, research, and response. Which efforts will find enough momentum to generate funding? Will they address individual symptoms, or more diffuse causes such as design criteria and community planning? All represent real-world costs, and most do not conform to talking points. What will be next? Here in Alaska, we’ll be among the first to find out.

  • Ryan  Cooper

    An environmental scientist based in Anchorage, Ryan is a lifelong Alaskan who’s spent the last 13 years studying biology and its interactions with development

    Contact Ryan
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