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Understanding climate change impacts vital for Alaska industries

Posted: January 22, 2014 - 1:00am

After the deep freeze that gripped much of the nation in early 2014, we can add “Polar vortex” to our growing lexicon of terms for extreme weather. It joins the words “snowpocalypse,” “derecho,” “superstorm” and “mega-typhoon,” which have slipped from weather forecasting textbooks into our everyday lingo in recent years.

These extreme weather phenomena have at least two things in common. Tragically, the events have claimed thousands of lives, uprooted the lives of millions of others and caused billions of dollars in damage.

Second, scientists say the increasing frequency of these storms can be linked to the climate change underway on our planet. The melting polar ice cap, which Alaskans are experiencing first-hand, is dramatically changing weather patterns and producing devastating new storms.

I recently held a hearing through my Subcommittee on Oceans Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard to explore what’s called the “weather enterprise” in the U.S. — the unique public-private partnership between the National Weather Service and its private sector and academic partners.

This partnership is key to our physical, economic and environmental security because economists tell us 30 percent of all U.S. economic activity is in weather-dependent sectors, like aviation and agriculture.

Extreme weather events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, and climate events, such as droughts, are increasing in frequency. In 2012, we saw 11 weather and climate disasters that exceeded $1 billion in damages.

This means we are increasingly reliant on the weather enterprise to keep us safe and protect our economic prosperity. This is especially important in Southeast Alaska, where local industries from fishing to aviation depend on accurate weather reports.

Accurate weather forecasting relies on some pretty expensive satellites, radars and computer systems, a challenge in the face of increasingly tight federal budgets.

Several studies in recent years all point to past successes in modernizing the Weather Service, and cite the need for continuing changes and improvements. They say we need to build a “Weather Ready Nation.”

This includes redirecting the weather workforce to focus more on partnering and communicating with emergency managers and local stakeholders. We also need to improve our weather and climate research to ensure the U.S. remains the world leader in forecasts that protect lives and property from weather-related threats.

We also must recognize what Alaskans have long known: that global warming presents numerous opportunities as well as warning signs. Many of those opportunities are based in the Arctic. It’s often lost on those in Washington, D.C., that the only reason America is an Arctic nation is because of Alaska.

I believe Alaskans have proven that development in the changing Arctic — oil and gas exploration, shipping, tourism — can be done responsibly.

This means setting a high bar for Arctic development by using accurate science and data, incorporating local traditional knowledge, putting in place critical supporting infrastructure and effective regulations to protect our Arctic people and communities and the subsistence resources upon which they depend.

Since coming to the U.S. Senate five years ago, I’ve put together a package of Arctic legislation to help get us there. The five bills aim to:

• Improve our scientific understanding of the Arctic;

• Research Arctic health needs;

• Develop the ports and other infrastructure we need;

• Share Arctic-generated revenues with its communities and tribes; and,

• Strengthen our international profile in Arctic affairs.

Humans have dreamed of the promise of the Arctic for over 500 years. They’ve explored the margins of the polar icepack in ships, and tried to push to the pole in dogsleds and balloons.

Of course, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic knew the promise of that region, lived off its resources for millennia and created a vibrant culture.

At this critical juncture, our nation — led by Alaskans — has a responsibility to take full advantage of this promise and assert our leadership as climate change alters our weather and opens the Arctic to new opportunities.

• U.S. Senator Mark Begich has represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate since 2009 and is chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.

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