Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 but only became a state in 1959, just months before Hawaii. It’s awe-inspiring and rugged terrain stretches over 570,000 miles and is inhabited by 731,000 people making it the largest state in the US by land mass and 49th by population. Almost one third of the state sits in the Arctic Circle and 4.5% of it is covered by 100,000 glaciers covering 29,000 square miles. The state boasts more coastline than the rest of the country combined and the nation’s two largest forests. Wildlife in this last frontier is diverse and abundant.
Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the country and with that warming, its permafrost has begun to melt. Permafrost is ground with a temperature that remains at or below freezing, and it provides a stable foundation for much of Alaska’s infrastructure— found beneath 85% of the state. As permafrost melts, the ground sags and infrastructure like roads and buildings deteriorate or collapse. Also a carbon store house, permafrost poses a global threat when it melts, beyond the immediate costs to Alaskan communities and dangers to both humans and wildlife. As frozen plants and animals in the permafrost warm and decompose, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. The amount of carbon now released by the world’s permafrost is nearly equal to the emissions of all of Japan.
Alaska’s Native communities will most directly bare the brunt of these changes. 87% of these communities are experiencing erosion and some are facing relocation. Many of the most remote communities rely on subsistence farming and are faced with threatened food supplies. In a rapidly-warming Alaska, wildlife also faces devastating consequences. For example, multiple mass bird die-offs have occurred since 2014, as warming seas have disrupted ecosystems and broken the food change on which they depend to survive.
Alaska is also a major producer of petroleum, exporting over $500 million in petroleum products in 2020. In December of 2020, the Trump Administration sought to increase oil production in the state by opening up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. The lease auction took place in early January of 2021, just two weeks before President Biden was sworn into office. However, the auction ended with a win for those who opposed the sale. Over half the auctions had no bidder, and the vast majority of the auctions won were by the state of Alaska itself. This was likely due to a combination of low oil prices, the coronavirus, and pressure from environmental protectionist groups.
While renewables currently contribute to a very small percentage of Alaska’s energy use, the state has a nonbinding commitment to generate 50% of its energy from renewables by 2050. In May of 2020, the state government enacted a bill to integrate electrical utilities, increasing energy efficiency and paving a path for the transition to renewables. Anchorage, the state’s largest city, enacted a Climate Action Plan in May of 2019 which focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while preparing for the impacts of climate change.
CREDIT: TRT World