Alaska’s New Climate Economy

Here in Alaska, climate change is no abstract concept. The reality is clear to anyone who has their eyes open. Entire villages on the arctic coast will likely be forced to move over the coming years as sea levels rise, and reduced sea ice causes increased storm tides. Even major arctic towns like Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), are feeling impacts as shorelines erode, and storm flooding encroaches on the town.

While I could go on in much more depth (and I did recently in an article for Alaska Magazine), what I really wanted to write about today is how climate change impacts elsewhere may also impact Alaska.

Last year, I was on a photography assignment in a small, little-known range of mountains just north of the Yukon River. I’d been flown in and dropped off on a remote ridge and spent five days traversing the entire range while making images. I completed my hike on the shore of the Yukon where my friend Steve picked me up by boat. He had a buddy with him, a botanist, who had recently relocated to Alaska from a long stint studying rainforest plants in SE Asia.

During a riverside lunch of freshly netted Whitefish tacos, the topic of Alaska’s future economy came up. At the time, I saw the economic future of our state as one of shrinkage. Oil and gas will eventually either run out, or as we are seeing currently, the world economy will shift so far toward renewables that the oil industry will simply be out-competed. The result for Alaska, I thought, was a new, reduced economy where extractive industries will play a lesser role.

The new-comer to the state however, saw it another way: Alaska’s population was going to grow due to an influx of climate refugees from other parts of the country and world.

Day before yesterday an article was published in the journal Nature Climate Change on this very topic. The article by Mathew E. Hauer models how rising sea levels are going to change the distribution of people in the United States, and what areas and states are likely to see losses and gains. Florida, for example, low-lying and storm-prone, is in trouble with over 2.5 million people being forced to abandon the city of Miami alone. Southern Louisiana, the Texas Gulf Coast, and low-lying cities on the easter seaboard will also be hit particularly hard. Those people have to go somewhere.

The paper proposes that cities close to the original homes of these climate refugees will see the biggest increases in population (Austin, Houston, Atlanta, and Orlando in particular). According to the author’s calculations, Alaska would see only a small increase in population.

But I wonder.

In a warmer world, Alaska is going to look a lot more inviting: warmer, uncrowded, with new potential for commercial agriculture. And if my hypothesis is correct that the oil and gas industry will fade from the state (leaving a real estate glut) it will also likely be cheap to buy homes and land. That might look appealing to many displaced people from further south who are looking to start again.

So is the author of the new paper underestimating the impacts of climate refugees on states like Alaska? Maybe.

I suspect we will start to see an answer to that question over the next 20 years or so.

Here is link to the abstract: https://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate3271.html

And a good write-up about the article from Anthropocene Magazine: http://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2017/04/where-will-u-s-climate-migrants-go/