Summer 2015. Southcentral Alaska. The road north passes through familiar scenery: hay flats near Palmer, lakes by Wasilla, scattered homes and businesses and forest in between. Then somewhere around Willow, the landscape changed. Greenery gave way to black.
We were driving to Denali State Park for a family camping trip alongside Byers Lake; a route we'd traveled many times before. This time, though, something was drastically different. This time, we passed miles of charred woodland and empty driveways. Earlier that summer, the Sockeye Fire charred thousands of acres of trees and dozens of houses and other structures. In just a few weeks, the blaze had reshaped the face of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
In Alaska, that happens all the time.
This is a place of perpetual transformation, both natural and manmade. Landscapes burn and bloom. People come and go. Coastlines erode. Waterways freeze with the seasons. Glaciers thaw. Industries boom, then bust. Shaped by environmental forces and rocked by economic and political storms, the landscape of the Last Frontier undergoes near-constant change.
One hundred years ago, Anchorage was a tent city on the shores of Ship Creek. Today, its downtown skyline is dotted with towering office buildings and hotels. The city itself reaches from Turnagain Arm to the Chugach Mountains and beyond, a patchwork of motley neighborhoods and shiny commercial development and parkland.
What will it look it all look like 100 years from now?
Spoiler alert: There's really no way to know for sure. Outside forces make the future unpredictable. But science, public policy and history can combine to form some kind of picture. Neighborhoods and cities pen land use plans for future development. Scientific models use current trends to forecast distant happenings. Community and business leaders predict and prepare.
Together, they hint at what our future might hold.
Alaska is so hot right now. When it comes to our state's future, climate change dominates much of the conversation, whether you speak with state economists or community organizers. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Alaska temperatures are rising twice as quickly as in other parts of the country, triggering widespread environmental effects. Like fire.
Alaska's wildfires are predicted to increase in both size and frequency. The state has already experienced more large fires over the last decade than any decade since the 1940s, according to a recent National Climate Assessment. By the end of the century, annual wildfires are projected to scorch three times as much land as they do now.
The flames are already at our doorsteps. In July, the McHugh Creek fire burned hundreds of acres of parkland just south of Anchorage. Last year, it was the Sockeye Fire in the Mat-Su Borough. In 2014, the Funny River Fire burned more than 100 square miles of the Kenai Peninsula, sparking evacuations and destroying structures in its path.
When the land's not on fire, it faces other perils, like increased erosion and flooding. Communities along Alaska's west coast and Yukon River—think Kivalina, Shaktoolik or Eagle—have already been grappling with these issues for years. Now the Cook Inlet region faces increased risk, too, according to research from the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Cooperative Extension Service.
What does this all mean for Alaska's future? Get used to the smell of wood smoke. Prepare for burn bans. Maybe consider an alternative to that riverfront property you've been eyeing.
The future population of Alaska will be both older and more ethnically diverse—that's if current trends continue, according to Eddie Hunsinger, a demographer with the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
One major factor drives that shift: Migration. While approximately 40,000 people enter the state every year, the same number leave it—triggering a subtle, steady metamorphosis.
"Even when there's no total population change, the face of the population is a lot different," Hunsinger said.
Alaska's youngest generations are more ethnically diverse than ever. Anchorage's public schools are currently among the most diverse in the country, according to research by University of Alaska Anchorage sociology professor Chad Farrell, and Anchorage is also home to some of the most diverse neighborhoods in America. The trend goes beyond Alaska's largest city: In Dutch Harbor, you can find fishermen with roots in Africa or Samoa. In hub communities across Western Alaska and the North Slope, you can meet cab drivers from Laos or restaurateurs from Korea or pilots from Texas or California. Communities across Alaska are filled with people from other places. It wasn't always like that.
Barring any changes, these diverse young Alaskans will eventually have children of their own. Some will move away. But many will stay, making the state's population even more diverse than it already is, Hunsinger said.
Alaskans of the future are expected to be older, too, because the Baby Boomers who moved to Alaska in the '70s and '80s are now reaching the age of seniority. A decade ago, the state was home to about 40,000 senior citizens, Hunsinger said. Today, there are about 70,000. The number is projected to hit 140,000 over the next 20 years, according to the state.
The population shift should be especially apparent in Southeast Alaska, where residents are older and the birth rate is lower.
When it comes to the fastest-growing regions in Alaska, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is the long-running titleholder. But state social scientists says it's also important to remember the past. Historically, Alaska's major population booms have been triggered by unpredictable, relatively sudden events, like the threat of war, or the discovery of gold or oil. It's difficult to predict what could happen next.
In 2016, the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity became the largest passenger vessel to traverse the Northwest Passage, carrying more than 1,500 people from Alaska to New York. Could warming Arctic temperatures bring more business to Alaska's coastal communities? Could Nome blossom into a bustling Bering Sea port city, bolstered by cruise traffic and cargo shipping?
The military presents another unknown. During the height of World War II, some 6,000 people lived on the remote Aleutian Island of Adak, and Whittier was a busy entrypoint for soldiers coming to Alaska. Today, both places are dotted with abandoned military buildings, and the populations are just a fraction of what they once were.
Still, the military holds a prodigious place in Alaska life. It's one of the state's largest employers. It molded Anchorage into the frontier metropolis it is today, "A war boom town which never seemed to stop booming," according to Alaska historian Terrence Cole.
A future Alaska military buildup could mean new life for communities like Adak or Whittier. On the other hand, future force reductions could have major repercussions for cities like Anchorage or Fairbanks, where the military still plays a central role.
Economists and demographers say there's no crystal ball—just a lot of uncertainty.
For all the growth in the Mat-Su, Anchorage is still poised to remain the largest city in Alaska—at least into the foreseeable future. What will it look like 50 years from now?
"I've always said this—I want to see Cole Haan next to the Kobuk," said Andrew Halcro, the former state legislator and current executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority.
Sipping coffee in a Downtown Anchorage cafe, Halcro talks about the Anchorage of tomorrow: hopes for long term growth and the many hurdles to development. Alaska's future is inextricably tied to the Lower 48, he said. Big changes are sweeping the country. Alaska has to be prepared.
"The economy's gonna have to shift," Halcro said. "We see what doors are closing; it remains to be seen what doors will open."
Across the Anchorage bowl, affordable undeveloped land is in increasingly short supply. The way Halcro sees it, the future of Anchorage is built around redevelopment and reinvestment. He has his eyes on three places in particular—downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods of Fairview and Mountain View. He calls these the "Renaissance area;" neighborhoods in the process of reinventing themselves.
"Downtown, Fairview and Mountain View, in the next 50 years, are going to be, like, the place," he predicts.
The change has already begun. Mountain View's new neighborhood development plan, approved by the Anchorage Assembly earlier this year, lays out a vision for a vibrant commercial corridor, real estate development and amplified public art and green spaces. Fairview is the target of a recent tax abatement effort and various other revitalization efforts. Downtown, organizations like ACDA and the Anchorage Downtown Partnership are leading the charge toward revival.
"Our polling shows that downtown has incredible potential," Halcro said. "Our polling on downtown shows that we have a very specific target of people who come downtown, those are the markets that are growing."
To fully realize its potential, Halcro said, Downtown Anchorage needs to reinvent itself—one part Alaskana, one part cosmopolitan urban hub. There are already plans in place.
The Anchorage Downtown Comprehensive Plan calls for more housing, diverse amenities and a developmental jump-start sparked by leveraging public and private investment. The Ship Creek Framework Plan paints a futuristic picture that includes everything from a new waterfront park to hotels and cruise ship berths. Conceptual design calls for a new harbor and floating stage. Another includes a zipline running from a Hillside Village to a waterfront sports and recreation complex.
The plans are exhilarating to look at. Are they realistic?
Maybe not, depending on whom you ask. Alaska is facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall. The next 100 years could be just as tempestuous as the first. But hope springs eternal, from rural Alaska to our urban core.
"There's no question," Halcro said. "The future is incredibly bright."