Alaska Reels During Summer of Fire, Heat and Floods
The impacts of a changing climate have been evident around the state all season
ANCHORAGE, Alaska — “Welcome aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 109 to smoky Anchorage,” a voice said over the loudspeaker as travelers boarded a plane in Fairbanks.
The skies turned from blue to dark gray halfway through the 260-mile flight, shrouding the stunning vistas below. Then they disappeared altogether. In the final two minutes, as the wheels reached for the runway at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, the smell of smoke filled the pressurized cabin of the Boeing 737 and an eerie orange colored the Alaskan landscape.
Welcome to the Last Frontier, where record-breaking heat is shattering temperature records.
Alaska’s average temperature in July was 58.1 degrees Fahrenheit — 5.4 degrees above the average and nearly 1 degree higher than the previous high set in July 2004 (Climatewire, Aug. 19).
Scientists say that’s contributing to the wildfires that are burning around Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula to the south. The blazes, fed by an unusually dry summer and high winds, have closed highways and stranded tourists in their cars.
They’ve also caught the attention of prominent lawmakers.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told E&E News yesterday that her own flight from Fairbanks to Anchorage on Monday was filled with tourists trying to reach the town of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula, after their bus was turned back outside of Anchorage.
She described the conditions as “very unusual,” noting that wildfires rarely lay heavy smoke over the city of Anchorage
“This is extreme for Anchorage to have fires to the south and fires to the north,” Murkowski told E&E News yesterday at an event featuring EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
In his own remarks, Wheeler noted that several people who were scheduled to participate at the event were stranded by the wildfires. The gathering was sponsored by the Resource Development Council, a business association representing major industries in the state.
The hazy skies colored Wheeler’s remarks about improvements to air quality since the enactment of the Clean Air Act. “Our air today is … well maybe not today,” he ad-libbed, to laughter. “But in general our air today is 74% cleaner than it was in 1970.”
Aside from the immediate dangers of people being stranded on roads by wildfire, Murkowski said she also feared the health impacts of heavy smoke that choked the state’s largest metropolitan area earlier in the week. It had subsided by yesterday.
She recounted a friend asking this week for recommendations on indoor activities in Anchorage because she did not want to take her asthmatic child outside.
“It is bad right now,” she said. “It is bad and it’s scary.”
Alaska’s sheer size and diversity of environments earned the state its own chapter in last year’s National Climate Assessment. Serious climate impacts were evident throughout Alaska as an E&E News reporter accompanied Murkowski around the state for several days last week.
In Fairbanks — interior Alaska’s largest city — the traditionally dry summers that often spark massive wildfires have trended wetter in recent years. On Monday, the Tanana River partially submerged a picnic table and a fire pit.
In the Inupiat village of Wales on the Seward Peninsula, residents said the lack of sea ice has disrupted their subsistence way of life. Their culture is eons old. They pleaded for federal support for a sea wall to slow down erosion on their beach. It’s normally buffered by sea ice, but now it’s increasingly washing into the seawater that edges closer to their village of 150 people.
At Teller, a low-lying coastal Inupiat village of 250 people, about 50 miles from Nome, residents raised concerns about worsening flooding. They have started building new homes higher up the hillsides.
In Newtok, a Yupik Alaska Native village perched on the Ningliq River deep in the massive Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge in western Alaska, residents said this summer’s 90-plus degree temperatures had worsened the community’s battle to keep its infrastructure from sinking into the melting permafrost.
Nearly half of Newtok’s 250 residents will become among the first Americans to be relocated because of climate change. The move is scheduled for October. In a meeting with Murkowski last week, villagers described unusually heavy offshore storms that have pushed water into the rivers, slamming their badly eroded shores with stormwater.
About 90 miles to the east, in the village of Napakiak, severe summer storms have eroded so much of the coastline that local residents are starting to discuss relocation. The local school district is trying to save its diesel fuel tanks from sliding into the river, according to local news reports by KYUK.
In Newtok, the town’s attorney said last week that he’s drafting a request for an emergency declaration in the event fall storms take out an aging dike that helps protect the town’s fragile coast. It could be catastrophic.
Even as village residents celebrate the beginning of their relocation this fall, half them will remain at the old site, with the hopes of having everyone moved to safety by 2023. They need to raise more than a $100 million to finish the plan.
There is growing unease about the winter, when the storms “hit hard and last for days,” one resident told Murkowski. “Disaster will strike.”