Study estimates warming will add to Alaska public structure costs

Roads, bridges built for cold may deteriorate as temperatures warm

Posted: Thursday, June 28, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Climate change could add up to 20 percent to the cost of building and maintaining Alaska's public structures over the next 23 years, a university study has concluded.

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Roads, bridges, airports, harbors, schools and sanitation systems built for a cold climate will deteriorate faster as thawing, flooding and coastal erosion increase due to warming, the University of Alaska Anchorage study said.

Authors Peter Larsen and Scott Goldsmith call the numbers preliminary estimates that will be refined as additional data is fed into their model. But the study shows the magnitude of the effects of warming, Larsen said.

"This is not an inexpensive or simple issue," said Larsen, a resource economist.

Both the engineering community and builders can take insights away from the study as they work on future projects and how they might hold up as the air and grounds warms, he said.

Goldsmith, a professor of economics, said the study begins to quantify costs of climate change and the trade-off between mitigation and not taking corrective action. The added cost for public infrastructure will be just 10 to 12 percent higher due to warming for the five decades from 2030 to 2080, the study concluded.

The projections are in a 91-page report released Wednesday by the UAA Institute of Social and Economic Research. The model incorporates climate projections with a catalog of Alaska public structures and estimates of their life spans and replacement costs developed with the UAA School of Engineering.

According to data compiled by the UA Fairbanks Geophysical Institute between 1949 and 2005, average annual temperature increased 3.9 degrees in Fairbanks, 3.6 degrees in Anchorage, 5.4 degrees in Talkeetna and 3.8 degrees in Bethel.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that humans are responsible for much of the warming by putting carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research at the University of Colorado provided Alaska researchers with 21 climate change projections at six Alaska locations. All show continued warming in Alaska. The study picked three representative of projections of less, mid-range and more warming.

"We re calling them warm, warmer and warmest," Larsen said. "Not a single climate projection we receive showed temperatures cooling."

ISER researchers created a list of public infrastructure throughout Alaska, when it was built, how long it typically lasts and how much it would cost to replace it - plus the difference due to faster deterioration because of warming. The database contains nearly 16,000 elements in 19 categories, including more than 9,000 miles of roads.

The model predicts the costs of maintaining and replacing public infrastructure between 2007 and 2030 - without factoring in climate change - at $32 billion. Additional damage from warming could add $3.6 billion to $6.1 billion, roughly 10 to 20 percent for the next 23 years.

The model predicts the cost of maintaining and replacing infrastructure between 2007 and 2080 at $56 billion, with warming adding $5.6 billion to $7.6 billion.

Thawing of permafrost is one of the most worrisome potential effects. Dramatic settlement will occur if the formerly frozen ground has high ice content and fine soil grains, the study said.

"Anything that is built on continuous or discontinuous permafrost should be looked at a little more closely, in our opinion," Larsen said.

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