Global warming could cost Alaska billions

Study tracks the effect of rising temperatures on state infrastructure

Posted: Monday, March 12, 2007

ANCHORAGE - As temperatures rise in Alaska, so will damage to roads, runways, public buildings and utility lines, according to a new study.

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Replacement cost of Alaska's public infrastructure due to warming will be measured in billions of dollars over the next 75 years, according to the report from the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

"Structures in Alaska were intended to be built in a cold environment," said resource economist Peter Larsen. "If you have temperatures increasing, which is what our climate projections are showing, then in general, structures are going to depreciate more quickly."

Melting permafrost, coastal erosion and flooding due to climate change will take a toll on hospitals, schools, bridges and roads, according to the report.

Three coastal Alaska villages, Shishmaref, Newtok and Kivalina, already face moving within 10 to 15 years at a cost as high as $355 million, according to the Army Corps of Engineers. A 2003 U.S. General Accountability Office report said erosion and flooding affects 184 of Alaska's 213 native villages.

The prospect of rising costs will be an important starting point for public policy discussions on warming, said Fran Ulmer, Alaska's former lieutenant governor and the head of the research institute.

"Doing nothing isn't cost neutral," Ulmer said. "Doing something, whether it's mitigation or adaptation or whatever, is something that policymakers need to take into consideration."

Concerns over the cost of climate warming costs have popped up elsewhere.

California in September filed a lawsuit seeking millions of dollars against automakers for expected repairs from warming. The world's six largest automakers on Tuesday asked a judge to toss out the lawsuit, arguing that global warming is an international issue and that greenhouse gases emitted from vehicles are a small fraction of the source.

Warming's effect has been more pronounced near the poles.

According to the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, the mean annual temperature at Barrow, America's northernmost community, increased 3.6 degrees between 1949 and 2005. In Fairbanks, Alaska's second largest community, it's a hair under 4 degrees. That doesn't sound like much unless the frozen ground on which structures are built is within a degree or two of thawing.

Larsen and other authors of the report reached their conclusions from a socioeconomic model created to estimate additional replacement costs resulting from climate change. Their work is undergoing peer review. Until that's complete, their research paper will not be released with specific numbers of what global warming could cost Alaska.

Even when the numbers are complete, Larsen said, the model will not predict specific replacement costs but instead will indicate trends.

"Models, tools, whatever you want to call them, people who are not involved in the research always want to stress the results, that final number," Larsen said. "The modelers who do it really stress the insights that the model provides, which are, 'What are some of the locations that are more prone, and what's the magnitude of the costs?"'

The model incorporates the latest projections of future climate based on studies from around the globe.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of North American member universities, provided Larsen with 21 climate change projections - monthly temperatures and precipitation - for the years 2030 and 2080 at six Alaska locations.

The projections were collected from researchers in Norway, China, Canada, France, Australia, Germany, Korea and the United Kingdom, plus NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NCAR itself. The projections vary but all show longer summers and higher temperatures in every season.

"What we can say in general about Alaska is that Alaska is going to become a more warm place and slightly more wet, but more warm than wet," Larsen said.

To determine how it would affect public structures, Larsen first had to create a list of them. The model includes 15,653 pieces of infrastructure, including nearly 9,600 miles of roads.

All structures depreciate as they age. The UA Anchorage School of Engineering provided its best estimate of how the useful life of structures would diminish if temperatures rose.

Bridges and buildings will have the greatest replacement costs, Larsen said. Roads and airport runways are less vulnerable because they require more frequent replacement anyway, he said.

The most vulnerable areas, according to a the model, are communities in on exposed coasts, flood plains or areas of discontinuous permafrost. On a map of Alaska, those characteristics are found in a wide swath between the Alaska Range and the Brooks Range from the Canadian border to the Bering Sea.

On Alaska's west coast, sea ice that once provided a barrier against violent fall storms has diminished, leaving communities vulnerable to erosion.

A few degrees of warming can make a significant difference in the stability of ground in areas of isolated or discontinuous permafrost, undermining foundations on ground that once stayed frozen all year.

The model, Larsen said, is in the early stages of development and results should be considered preliminary. The model assumes no adaptation, which might include altering construction methods to compensate for the effects of warming.

"This doesn't necessarily answer the question of, 'How much will you have to appropriate to deal with the climate change impacts on the ground in Alaska?"' Ulmer said, "but it shows some trends, some regional variations, and it show that in Alaska, it's a pretty big deal."

Other states will eventually feel the effects, Ulmer said.

"When different jurisdictions, whether it's Iowa or Louisiana or whatever, are looking to try to understand what difference might climate change make to them, it's pretty obvious that the federal government at some point will have to appropriate some funds to deal with the climate change impacts."

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