Opinions

OPINION: What my trip to Alaska showed me about climate resiliency

As the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, I cannot effectively do my job without hearing from the many Americans working to protect our cultural heritage, advance our economy and safeguard our environment. Each trip I take broadens my perspective so that the decisions we’re making in Washington D.C., are informed by the people most affected by their outcomes.

Connecting with the people of Alaska is a top priority of mine, especially given that Alaska is warming faster than any other U.S. state due to climate change. Just this fall, a historic tropical storm, the remnants of Typhoon Merbok, lashed Western Alaska, bringing flooding, erosion and crippling power outages, particularly for coastal communities. The impacts of this storm extend beyond the physical loss of possessions and property. In its aftermath, we’ve seen a loss of food security and the destruction of culturally significant places.

So that we minimize these types of tragic losses in the future, NOAA is continually working to improve lead time and accuracy of warnings for these hazards. Increased outreach and communication will help us to provide adequate time for vulnerable communities to make the best possible decisions to prepare for these types of events.

In the spirit of partnership and co-creation of solutions, I recently had the privilege of meeting with scientists, tribal leaders, tribal organizations, lawmakers, emergency responders, fishermen and countless Alaska citizens from Anchorage to Juneau, Kenai to Nome, and Homer to Fairbanks. Seeing firsthand the impacts of climate change — which Alaskans are living with every day — will help shape how NOAA helps communities, industries and individuals in Alaska and across our nation brace for climate change.

Alaskans that I met understand climate realities. Tribal elders tell stories of communities going hungry and not having enough salmon to feed their people. A fish processing plant in Nome that was set up to process salmon, halibut and crab is now receiving species like Pacific cod, for which they aren’t equipped, due to shifts in fish populations. And Alaska Natives have to travel twice as far to hunt for walrus and whales because of the loss of sea ice.

They also recognize the need for action. Villagers are planning to move their entire communities as coastal erosion is chewing up their villages, and melting permafrost is breaking up their homes. State lawmakers and U.S. senators share the concerns of their constituents and are looking for opportunities for federal and state governments to come together to support Alaska’s climate adaptation needs.

The Alaska from which I returned is dramatically different from the state I first visited nearly 50 years ago as a young scientist. These changes underscore why NOAA is focusing our science and observations on building a climate-ready nation, and nowhere is this work more relevant than in Alaska.

Realizing the vision of a climate-ready nation begins with helping communities build resilience to their unique climate threats that are increasing and evolving. This is work that NOAA is actively supporting in Alaska through initiatives like a pilot project with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The program bolsters Alaska Native communities’ resilience to climate change by better understanding threats and needed responses and can serve as a roadmap for how NOAA can support climate preparedness and climate equity in other regions. It is also a primary objective of the nation’s new National Strategy for the Arctic Region, which places a strong focus on addressing the climate crisis and supporting the livelihoods of people in the U.S. Arctic.

In addition, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act give us an even greater ability to make the investments needed to accelerate climate preparedness as part of President Joe Biden’s commitment to these issues. We’ll use these funds to restore coastlines, protect food security and help manage resources so that Alaskans living on the frontlines of climate change can better plan and adapt to what lies ahead. Through enhanced capabilities, NOAA will work in tandem with decision makers to better understand how, where and when conditions are changing, and to equip them with actionable information.

We’re seeing the disruptive impacts of climate change materialize in Alaska first. For NOAA, this is a precursor of what we can expect throughout the rest of the country but also an opportunity to get it right when it comes to a coordinated preparedness response. Together with Alaska’s lawmakers, tribes and tribal organizations, industries and citizens, we hope to help make it the forefront of a climate-ready nation.

Richard “Rick” Spinrad, Ph.D., is an American oceanographer and government official serving as the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He also concurrently serves as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.

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