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Alaska’s wild-weather summer underscores our need to address climate change

  • Author: Austin Quinn-Davidson
    | Opinion
    , Shaina Kilcoyne
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 29
  • Published August 29

People with their dogs swarm to DeLong Lake hoping to stay cool in the record breaking heat in Anchorage, Alaska, Friday, July 5, 2019. Alaskans who routinely pack knit caps and fleece jackets in summer on Friday were swapping them for sunscreen and parasols amid a prolonged heatwave. Residents of Anchorage and other south-central cities completed a fifth week of above-normal temperatures, including a record high 90 degrees (32.22 Celsius) on Thursday, July 4, in the state's largest city. (Anne Raup/Anchorage Daily News via AP)

Alaskans rely on seasonal cycles, making the most of every minute of the long days of summer until the yellow leaves start to drop, signaling the end of another bountiful summer and the beginning of a slower, more cozy season. We survive through the darkness until the light creeps back and breakup begins, yet again triggering the anticipation of a busy, plentiful summer.

But the past few months have reminded us that these seasonal cycles are fragile. This summer we’ve seen nearly every weather record smashed, including those that track heat, rainfall, wildfires, melting sea ice, and air pollution. We’ve seen an unprecedented number of wildfires raging due to extremely dry and hot conditions, resulting in smoky air, destruction of structures, and the expenditure of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Many of us have stayed inside to avoid poor air quality, and during the first week of school, the Anchorage School District canceled outdoor after-school activities and recess due to unhealthy conditions. Warmer waters have put stress on salmon, leading to die-offs and changing runs as salmon hold in cooler water. Most of Southcentral and Southeast Alaska is experiencing a drought. Last weekend, friends canceled their annual moose hunt, unable to boat up the Little Susitna River as a result of record low flows caused by the unusually hot and dry conditions. And looming in the not too far distance, we fear how this warmer trend will affect our winters. Rapid and drastic shocks to our climate — and to our seasonal traditions — are affecting our way of life.

Meanwhile, our rural communities have been warning us for years about the impacts of climate change. Coastal communities, threatened by erosion as permafrost melts and storm surges intensify, are facing potential relocation. Rivers — the highways of rural Alaska — are not freezing over, creating life-threatening conditions.

The impacts of a changing climate can feel overwhelming, but Alaskans are resilient. The Municipality of Anchorage is leading the state in climate solutions that not only reduce negative impacts on the traditions that sustain us, but also save taxpayer money. Guided by the municipality’s recently-adopted Climate Action Plan, we are already operating more efficiently and investing in our future by taking actions such as generating enough energy to power 6,400 Anchorage homes by turning landfill methane gas into electricity; swapping traditional street lights to LEDs, which use about half as much energy; using technology such as motion detectors and efficient boilers to reduce energy use and costs; replacing police SUVs with hybrids to reduce emissions and gas costs, paying for the difference in cost in less than two years; and installing the largest rooftop solar array in Anchorage, which not only reduces our reliance on traditional energy sources but will save nearly $1 million in energy costs over the life of the project. The Climate Action Plan provides a road map by which the municipality will continue to save money, reduce our contribution to climate change and prepare for extreme weather events.

Anchorage residents can also help tackle the challenges of a changing climate through individual actions. Some low-cost ways you can make a difference include walking, biking or taking the bus to work or school; using LED lights; installing a programmable thermostat; reducing waste, recycling, and composting in order to extend the life of the Anchorage landfill; and growing your own food or buying locally-grown foods when possible. But by far the most impactful thing you can do is reach out to your elected representatives to voice your support for climate action. Our elected leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to make decisions that will sustain our way of life as Alaskans, but they need to hear from you.

Climate change is here in Alaska. Luckily, Alaskans are problem solvers. When we see a challenge, we dig in and get to work. Together, we will do our part to address our changing climate. Our traditions and way of life are too important not to.

Austin Quinn-Davidson represents West Anchorage on the Anchorage Assembly.

Shaina Kilcoyne is the Energy and Sustainability Manager at Solid Waste Services for the Municipality of Anchorage. She leads the implementation of the Anchorage Climate Action Plan.

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