In Alaska, the environment is changing in response to warming temperatures. Projections for the future suggest that temperature and precipitation will increase, which has the potential to increase risks to residents and create new costs. I coordinated two interdisciplinary research teams to evaluate climate change related costs to Alaska through the end of the century considering two future climate scenarios: one with relatively high greenhouse gas emissions (representative concentration pathway, or RCP, 8.5) and one where global action to reduces greenhouse gas emissions substantially reduces climate change (RCP4.5).
Damages to public infrastructure
Increased temperature and precipitation are likely affect infrastructure by increasing permafrost thaw, flooding, and damage from rainfall hitting surfaces, among other impacts including coastal erosion. Changes in soil freeze-thaw cycles may also affect structures if the freezing point is crossed more frequently during cold months. To understand the potential economic implications of these environmental changes, we used climate projections and an engineering based-infrastructure model to determine the possible extent of damages to roads, buildings, airports, railroads, and pipelines through the end of the century.
We determined that damage to infrastructure from near-surface permafrost thaw, flooding, precipitation, and freeze-thaw cycles could result in $5.5 billion under for the high emissions future and $4.2 billion with mitigation. Damages were largest for flooding of roads, followed by near-surface permafrost thaw damage to buildings. When proactive adaptation measures are taken to reduce the risks of damage to infrastructure, costs decreased considerably to $2.9 billion for high emissions and $2.3 billion for lower emissions.
Costs of responding to wildfires
The area burned by wildfires in Alaska is expected to continue increasing as the climate warms. Fires are fought to minimize damage and risks when they occur in populated areas or near important structures and natural resources. As fire activity increases, the costs associated with fighting these fires are also expected to increase. We calculated total wildfire response costs through the end of this century to be $1.2–2.1 billion for the high emissions scenario and $1.1–2.0 billion for the lower emissions scenario. Costs were highest in management areas with high wildfire suppression priority, but where risks to human life and property are relatively low.
*These analyses were conducted while I was a Science & Technology Policy Fellow sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) and hosted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These studies were part of the Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis (CIRA) project.