With the COVID-19 pandemic limiting long-distance moves and a new group of fighter jets arriving in Alaska, the state has ended its longest stretch of population decline since World War II, according to estimates released Thursday by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
From 2016 through 2020, the state recorded four consecutive years of population declines. But as of July 1, 2021, Alaska had 734,323 residents, up 745 from the same date the year before.
If not for the redeployment of F-35 fighter jets to Eielson Air Force Base — which brought about 1,000 new residents to the Fairbanks area — the decline may have continued.
Even with the new arrivals, the number of people moving out of Alaska exceeded the number of people moving in for a ninth consecutive year. But the new arrivals narrowed the migration gap, and when coupled with a natural increase, it was enough for the state to post a small gain.
State demographer David Howell said it remains to be seen whether the 2021 increase marks a turning point for the state’s population growth, or if the state will return to its long-term decline.
“I don’t want to say we’re breaking our trend of population loss, because this could be circumstantial,” he said.
“Next year’s estimates will be very telling,” Howell said.
The U.S. census measures Alaska’s population once per decade, but the state uses smaller surveys and Permanent Fund dividend data to deliver annual estimates of how many people live here.
The estimate released Thursday may be revised in future years, as have prior annual estimates, but Howell said he expects the revisions to keep a small gain.
Local governments use population estimates to predict demand for new schools and roads, nonprofits use them to apply for federal grants distributed based on population, and businesses use them to gauge possible demand.
Among boroughs, Fairbanks was the fastest-growing when judged by the number of new residents, and Yakutat was the fastest-growing by percentage.
Data tables indicate a jump in the number of Haines residents since the census, but Howell believes the census undercounted residents there.
Outmigration continues to exceed in-migration
Since 2016, when the state’s population peaked at just under 743,000 people, the number of Alaska residents has been trending downward.
Economists say the downward trend has been driven by economic conditions: Alaska’s economy has been in a recession, while the economies of Lower 48 states have been performing much better.
Even before the recession, the state’s population had been flattening.
In every year since 2012, the number of people moving out of the state has exceeded the number of people moving into the state.
That trend continued into 2021, but the pandemic dampened movement across the country. In Alaska, the number of people moving out of Alaska fell from 44,674 in 2020′s estimate to 40,544 in the estimate released Thursday.
At the same time, the number of people moving into the state remained steady, at about 37,200. Howell attributed that to the F-35 deployment.
That migration figure, plus the state’s natural increase — births minus deaths — resulted in the small population gain recorded Thursday.
Number of deaths surges beyond recorded COVID-19 numbers
Alaska has historically had one of the youngest populations in the nation, but with fewer young people moving here, that trend is changing and the state’s median age is rising.
Year by year, that means fewer births and more deaths. The new figures show the fewest number of births since 1979-1980.
They also show the largest number of deaths on record.
From July 1, 2020 to the same date in 2021, the number of deaths in Alaska rose from 4,613 to 5,373.
“This is a huge — this is a big jump. Deaths are up like 700, year over year, and this is much larger than we’ve seen looking at the 10-year average. Since 2010, our deaths have gone up on average at 98 per year, so the 700 jump is really big,” Howell said.
One obvious answer is the COVID-19 pandemic, but the state reported only 383 deaths related to COVID-19 during that period.
“So it’s certainly not the whole story,” Howell said.
He said he expects the state division of vital records to release a report in the spring that will examine the possible causes.