Alaska's Changing Arctic: Energy Issues and Trends
Climate Smart Infrastructure
New, expensive and/or critical infrastructure must be placed in “climate safe” spots — future energy development must take Arctic environmental change into account in all decision making. Adaptation tactics will have to be specialized for changing Arctic environments.
The greatest short term climate change impact for humans, infrastructure and Alaska’s energy supply is not slightly warmer average temperatures. Rather, the most damage will be caused by extreme events, which will become much more common.
Heavy precipitation & drought
Extreme precipitation is amplified by climate change. This can mean unusually high precipitation in a short period of time, such as the record rainfall that caused the fatal Haines landslide in December 2020. A heavy rain event on the North Slope, compounded by rapid spring thaw, led to the 2015 flooding of the Sagavanirktok (Sag) River. The event significantly damaged the Dalton Highway and interrupted supply hauls to the North Slope. Heavy rain in 2019 again flooded the Sag and threatened the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. This prompted costly mitigation to prevent future infrastructure damage.
Climate change also manifests in the frequency and intensity of drought. Small hydropower projects, relied on by many Alaska communities, are especially vulnerable to drought because they have very little water storage. For example, Ketchikan received more than 100 inches of rain in 2018, yet was in a drought. Due to low water supply, they were forced to use diesel for electricity rather than hydropower.
More rain during extreme events
Freezing rain has a major impact on energy infrastructure. For example, heavy snow mixed with freezing rain caused thousands of Interior Alaska residents to lose power over the 2021–22 winter holiday season. Power outages caused by icing events impact commerce and industry, as well as the general public. Rural Alaska communities can see essential travel and supply chain disruptions. Winter icing events can coat vegetation and block access to food by wildlife such as sheep. This secondarily impacts subsistence activities.
Wildfire is a growing risk
Though wildfire is natural in Alaska, the frequency of severe burns has dramatically increased over the past 30 years. During the 50 years prior to 2000, only three years burned more than three million acres. Four of the 22 years since 2000 have seen that acreage burned. More wildfire is related to warmer springs, longer summers and more lightning. Denser vegetation and summer drying have increased the fuels available. Wildfires are now burning more intensely and deeper into the ground.
Wildfire is already a major threat to the Railbelt electrical systems in Interior Alaska. This threat will continue.
Costly permafrost thaw
Changes in permafrost threaten infrastructure, especially in the energy sector. Places like the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta are already seeing severe permafrost degradation.
The costs of thawing permafrost in Alaska are high because it directly impacts roads, buildings, pipelines and other costly infrastructure. Near-surface permafrost thaw is one of the largest sources of climate-induced damage to existing public infrastructure in Alaska. The necessity of mitigating permafrost thaw in Arctic Alaska is an added cost to oil and other industry development, which may disincentivize investment.
Military, climate and energy
The U.S. military accounts for about 80% of the total U.S. federal government fuel consumption. This means the Department of Defense will play a large role in meeting national and global climate goals. In the current administration, Executive Order 14008 Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, requires climate adaptation plans from each national agency. The DOD released its own plan based on five lines of effort in 2021.
Currently, there is one uniformed member of the military for every 34 Alaskans. In addition, the state has the highest number of military veterans in the U.S. — 8,775 veterans for every 100,000 people. As of 2019, Alaska had 21,407 active duty military personnel with 29,406 dependents.
Military installations in Alaska must be prepared for extreme weather events and ongoing environmental change. For example, thawing permafrost, coastal erosion and changes to river flows can threaten military infrastructure.
Billion-dollar infrastructure is at risk, as well as impacts to mission readiness, including training and deployment from Alaska as a strategic Arctic location. Both energy self-reliance and climate resilience are essential to protect national security and critical assets, including natural resources and energy infrastructure.
When Adak’s naval air station closed in 1997, the Navy no longer maintained a significant presence in the state. The Army represents most of the military population at 51%, Air Force next at 38% and the Coast Guard at 10%. Outside of the U.S. Coast Guard 17th Command, the seven Army and Air Force bases in the state rely on either natural gas distribution systems, in the Anchorage area, or coal-fired power plants. A notable partnership between Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Doyon and the Municipality of Anchorage created the JBER Methane Plant. The plant produces 50% of the electrical power of the Fort Richardson side of JBER, and 26% of the electrical power of JBER as a whole, from the methane released by the adjacent municipal landfill.
Increased vessel traffic
Changes in sea ice are already impacting shipping and increasing marine traffic around Alaska.
The Northern Sea Route connects the Pacific to Europe by passing through the Bering Strait and running along the Russian Arctic coast. The route was open rarely in the past. Now it is clear for a portion of most years, even outside the summer season. Because of thinner sea ice, ice-hardened vessels are now able to make the Northern Sea Route round trip early in the winter by going through ice that, decades ago, would have been too thick for all but the biggest icebreakers. In some years, ice-hardened vessels are now able to get through the Northern Sea Route past the first of the year.
Summer sea ice extent has already declined by about 40% since 1980. Even in the best case scenarios, summer ice coverage will continue to significantly decrease. In all but the most aggressive mitigation scenario, the Arctic will be ice free during the summer, possibly as early as 2035.
With the Bering Strait as a pinch point, increased maritime traffic is a big concern for Alaska. With this in mind, the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission set a port in the Bering Strait as a priority. Such infrastructure has significant energy needs and should have a structural design that takes coastal environmental change and local needs into account.
Increased ship traffic and associated infrastructure will also have major impacts on national security, tourism and subsistence activities.
Policy implications of climate smart infrastructure
New infrastructure is required to diversify Alaska’s energy portfolio and generate economic gains in construction and other sectors related to transitions in the state’s energy development and production. Given the rapid changes to Alaska’s coastal and terrestrial environments, infrastructure for oil and gas, as well as any renewables, will have to account for instability in permafrost, unpredictable rains or flooding, drought and storms. Alaska can be an Arctic leader in developing climate safe infrastructure techniques and materials.