Chris Stephens: Global warming could hold some benefits for Alaska

Real EstateNovember 10, 2012 

As the East Coast suffers terribly from Hurricane Sandy, concerns grow that global warming may trigger more similarly severe storms. Yet, global warming may be a net benefit to Alaska.

Five years ago I wrote a column about the possible effects of global warming on Alaska. That column was based on an article about global warming and the world's economy by Gregg Easterbrook, titled "Global Warming: Who Loses and Who Wins," which appeared in The Atlantic magazine in April 2007.

At that time, I facetiously suggested there could be a real estate play by taking advantage of possible changes from global warming and buy Alaska real estate. Today that idea does not look so facetious.

Easterbrook wrote that if climate change raises ocean levels and alters weather patterns, it could also cause a shift in the world's economy, with major losers and winners, including Alaska as a big winner. "If Alaska turned temperate, it would drive conservationists to distraction, but it would also open for development an area more than twice the size of Texas," he wrote. As incredible as it sounds, world wheat production could be in Alaska's future.

At the same time, Alaska has a coastline longer than that of the Lower 48, so we would certainly experience the negative effects of rising ocean levels. Some of our coastal villages are now having increased erosion, which could be the result of climate change.

Easterbrook said areas of the world with large land mass might grow more valuable. This means the northern hemisphere, because its land mass increases in the north, while the southern hemisphere becomes more narrow to the south. "Nearly all the added land value benefits of a warming world might accrue to Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia and Scandinavia," Easterbrook stated.

Climate change could make agriculture much more difficult or impossible in the current major agricultural areas of the world due to higher temperatures, more aridity and less water for irrigation. At the same time northern areas, which are now too cold for agriculture, could become productive farming regions.

If rain and snowfall were to decline in major agricultural areas because of warmer weather, water shortages for drinking and agriculture could become a world emergency. Water is currently a critical issue for China. But Alaska has lots of water. Former Gov. Walter Hickel in the '90s suggested we pipe water to the Lower 48. He was a forward thinker, and he might turn out to have been right.

In addition, Alaska has water for hydroelectric power. Easterbrook pointed out, "Zero-emission hydropower might become a premium energy form if greenhouse gases are strictly regulated." While it is not practical or physically possible now to transport electric power to the Lower 48, this might be possible in the future.

We are seeing the predicted summer retreat of sea ice from our northern shores and the beginning of ocean shipping through the Arctic Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. This offers potential cost savings in transportation. We are also seeing sea floor exploration that was not previously possible.

Esterbrook said world shipping lanes along Alaska's north coast could create an economic advantage for Alaska products at costs comparatively lower than our competition. Also support industries for world shipping might be possible.

The Coast Guard opened a helicopter base in Barrow this summer because of the increased activity in Arctic waters off Alaska, and the agency has additional plans to increase its presence in Arctic waters. The U.S. Navy is going to increase its presence in Arctic waters.

When I wrote my original column, I cautioned that global warming should not be taken lightly because of its potential human and environmental disasters -- but it appears that's just what's happening.


Chris Stephens, CCIM, is a local associate broker specializing in commercial and investment real estate. His opinion column appears every fourth Friday.

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