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Extreme weather events pose risks to Alaskans' health, study finds

Wacky weather may be hazardous to people's health, at least in far-flung areas of Alaska, according to researchers who have been conducting a multiyear study in eight communities around the state.

Abrupt shifts in temperature or winds, fierce downpours in lieu of steady but more moderate rains and prolonged periods of unusually hot, dry weather are some of the conditions that were correlated with human health problems, according to the research, which is being conducted by University of Alaska scientists.

Among the findings so far: Accidental injuries like hypothermia and frostbite increased about fourfold in communities where people had to change travel plans because of weather.

The spate of sudden winter warmups, which turn hard-packed ice and snow to mush, has stranded travelers and put them at risk, for example.

"You travel across a river that's frozen because it's beautiful and it's cold. You get out there and the temperature rises 40 degrees," said David Driscoll, director of the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a lead researcher on the project. That is precisely what happened in February in northwestern Alaska, where temperatures shifted abruptly from about zero degrees to well above freezing, he said.

Driscoll presented findings of the project at last week's International Epidemiological Association World Congress of Epidemiology. Preliminary results are also discussed in a paper published in 2013 in the International Journal of Circumpolar Health.

The project, which began in 2011, uses observation from about 90 longtime residents of communities in Northwest, Interior and Southeast Alaska.

Those participating -- designated "community sentinels" -- are residents with deep knowledge of their regions and past weather patterns, said Janet Johnson, a biostatistician and assistant professor at UAA's Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies and another researcher working on the project.

Unlike other weather and climate studies, the project focused on impacts to people's lives from volatile conditions rather than average temperatures or weather trends, Johnson said.

"We looked for unusual weather or people who changed their travel due to weather," she said.

Study results found that residents of all the regions expressed concerns about extreme weather affecting supplies of water and wild food. There were regional differences too.

In the northwestern Alaska communities -- Kivalina, Point Hope and Noatak -- untimely thaws were blamed for health and safety problems. Warmer, drier and windier weather, and the dust clouds produced in such conditions, were cited by residents as causes for increased respiratory problems, particularly among children.

In the Interior Alaska communities that participated in the study -- Healy, Cantwell and Anderson -- residents also blamed respiratory ailments on unusual weather events and altered weather conditions, according to the findings. They cited dust blown by stronger springtime winds, increased autumn pollen levels in the fall and thicker summertime wildfire smoke.

In the studies' Southeast Alaska communities -- Ketchikan and Angoon -- residents reported that unusual storms had caused damage to structures that led to injury accidents. Allergies and respiratory ailments were attributed to black mold in homes, also believed by residents to be caused by heavy rains. Residents also complained about increased risks of paralytic shellfish poisoning and resulting reduced access to wild foods.

Also observed in areas are insects not seen previously, Driscoll said. In northwestern Alaska, where residents routinely hang meat to dry, swarms of yellow jackets are becoming nuisances, he said.

"A lot of people in the Northwest were exclaiming over the size of these 'bees' that they've never seen before," he said.

The community sentinel project is continuing, with a focus now on developing systems to inform residents about new weather-related risks and improve safety measures, Driscoll and Johnson said.

Climate change has contributed to increased frequency, intensity and duration of extreme weather events, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There is growing evidence that anthropogenic climate change -- changes caused by humans' emissions of greenhouse gases -- is behind much of the new pattern in extreme-weather events, the IPCC said in a special report issued in 2012. The American Meteorological Society issued a report last year that examined several extreme events that occurred around the world in 2012, including Hurricane Sandy, and their possible links to long-term climate change. But extreme weather events are also part of the natural variability, so it is difficult to attribute specific events to climate change, experts say.

Alaska officials have been concerned for years about possible risks to people's health from the state's rapidly changing climate. The state government's 2008 climate change strategy identified health and safety problems from extreme weather events one of the major problems associated with climate change in Alaska.