Warming Alaska poses threat to humans

Polar bears aren’t the only ones whose health will suffer from global warming, according to a new report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Alaskans may face a variety of health problems — from higher rates of infectious disease to increased anxiety and depression — because of the changing climate, according to a new report published by the Division of Public Health.

The Assessment of the Potential Health Impacts of Climate Change in Alaska, released Jan. 8, synthesizes available data to identify a number of health risks posed by a warming world.

The goal of the assessment is to provide a broad overview of the range of potential health impacts and present examples of strategies for communities as they create plans to address the issue, said Joe McLaughlin, section chief of the Department of Health and Social Services’ Section of Epidemiology.

“We really recommend that community leaders throughout Alaska read this heath impact assessment, and think about what health impacts are most likely to occur in their respective jurisdictions and establish monitoring programs that will be on lookout for those impacts,” he said.

The project to assess health effects related to climate change in Alaska got off the ground shortly after the release of the 2014 National Climate Assessment, which was produced by a federal advisory committee based on data collected from across the nation.

From sea ice disappearing, changes in water temperatures and disappearing glaciers, the 2014 report’s findings showed a rapidly changing Arctic. Reports have shown Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the United States. Over the last 60 years, summer temperatures have averaged 3 degrees higher annually and winter temperatures averaged 6 degrees higher, according to the 2014 report.

“So this really prompted us to start thinking that we really need to get ahead of this, and make sure Alaska is prepared in case the national climate assessment predictions should come true,” McLaughlin said.

Few states have produced similar comprehensive assessments of the health impacts of climate change, he said.

The report relies on seven key indicators tied to the potential effects of climate change: temperature, precipitation, weather patterns, sea ice, glaciers, permafrost and sea levels. It assumes a temperature increase of 2–4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2015 and 8.6 degrees by 2085 and an increase in precipitation of up to 15 percent by 2035 and up to 35 percent by 2085. It also takes into account predictions that climate change will create increased storm intensity, longer summers, higher sea levels, continued glacier retreat, a boundary permafrost shift of hundreds of miles and virtually ice-free northern waters by 2014.

Sarah Yoder, the report’s author and a public health specialist in the environmental public health program at the Department of Health and Social Services, said the assessment underscores how interconnected the health of the community is to the environment. For example, erosion, flooding or ground instability might damage facilities or equipment needed for water sanitation, leading to the spread of disease. Melting permafrost might damage roadways, causing accidents and limiting communities’ access to healthcare, she said.

Other potential negative impacts related to climate change include declining mental health and wellbeing, an increase in accidents and injuries, increased exposure to hazardous materials, diminished access to food and nutrition, increased exposure to infectious diseases, exacerbation of non-communicable and chronic diseases, lack of sanitation and access to clean water and decreased access to healthcare facilities.

The assessment is one of a number of reports that will be used to direct the state’s strategy on climate change in the coming years, as the state grapples with the cascading impacts of environmental changes.

“I think the report is really useful,” said Dr. C. Nikoosh Carlo, a senior advisor for climate change policy to Gov. Bill Walker. “It’s a very comprehensive look at all the potential impacts related to health across the state.”

On Oct. 31, the governor signed an administrative order establishing the Alaska Climate Change Strategy and Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team, which is charged with developing both short-term solutions that can implemented immediately and a long-term strategic plan to address climate change. The Taskforce will make recommendations on action plans to the government in September.

Reach Erin Thompson at erin.thompson@peninsulaclarion.com.

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