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Alaska’s infrastructure benefits from university research

  • Author: Scott Rupp
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 16
  • Published May 16

The Akasofu Building, left, and Elvey Building, on the campus of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, on September 9, 2015.

Alaskans are tough people, and it turns out we’re tough on our infrastructure, too. The 2017 report card for American infrastructure made several recommendations for improvement ranging from replacing aging structures with innovative, resilient solutions to prioritizing regular maintenance.

Every Alaskan uses our transportation infrastructure to take their kids to school, manage their businesses, and access our state’s abundant natural beauty for work, sport or subsistence. Our roads, bridges, railways, ferry system and airports form the backbone of a healthy economy. And they all must be built — and maintained — to withstand harsh climate extremes while traversing a vast landscape.

These may sound like tough problems to solve. But luckily, Alaskans are no strangers to solving problems, and research done right here at the University of Alaska can help us improve our infrastructure for the long haul. As one of the states most directly affected by climate change, we have an opportunity to apply our experience and knowledge to create new and updated infrastructure that keeps our state moving forward.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks is full of world-class experts dedicated to putting our research to work here at home in Alaska. We support Arctic operations by partnering with both government and private industry. Partners like the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities reach out when current methods for estimating precipitation extremes don’t match what they see on the ground, and the UAF International Arctic Research Center is working with the department to develop more efficient construction projects and safer travel for businesses and families. Our research on future precipitation changes is critical in designing highways, culverts and bridges that are cost-effective and will hold up for decades into the future.

Alaska’s transportation network comes with a big price tag. We’re planning to spend $4.3 billion on Alaska infrastructure this year. This includes public and private sector repairs and maintenance on existing construction as well as new projects. We need to spend that money effectively and using science is key. Utilizing research done at UAF is even more cost-effective, with every dollar of state investment in research bringing in $6 more in external funding.

With two-thirds of Alaska communities off the road system, airports are arguably the most critical infrastructure in the state. While doing basic research into historical and projected wind data, UAF researchers recognized an opportunity to support aviation planning. Now we can provide data on wind in the context of runway construction and orientation, showing how speed and direction have changed. This information is critical for planners as they make difficult decisions on updating Alaska’s airports.

Making cutting-edge research available and useful isn’t a challenge for our researchers, it’s an opportunity. The results of our research can now be used by local governments across the state to develop better construction guidelines, in rural communities to develop adaptation plans, or by private engineers to guide their construction designs.

The long and the short of it is that UAF research saves the state of Alaska infrastructure dollars and keeps Alaskans safe. Supporting that isn’t a tough decision.

Scott Rupp lives in Fairbanks. He serves as the deputy director for the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks as well as the director of the Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning and the University Director of the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center. He is a professor of forestry and has served on the UAF faculty since 2001.

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