Alaska 2050 Forecast

This is Dr. Emily Schoerning with AR, and we’ve got your 2050 climate forecast for Alaska.  This is the last of the 10 regions described in the 2018 National Climate Assessment.  Alaska has so many unique and distinctive needs, it makes sense it needed its own chapter in the report, and it’s also a good transition as I look towards working on more detailed, state level forecasts.  Stay tuned in the near future for detailed forecasts for Texas, New Mexico, Maine, and Colorado.  And we’ll have more to come after that.

But back to Alaska!  As anyone in Alaska knows, things are changing on the ground faster in Alaska than they are anywhere in the lower 48.  I’m going to break it down in terms of changes to the sea, which are going to be huge, and changes to the land.  And unique to this forecast, I want to highlight a quote directly from the government report:

            “While many opportunities exist with a changing climate, economic prospects are not well captured in the literature at this time.”

Let’s talk about this straight.  Everyone knows there are going to be a lot of opportunities in Alaska.  The changes are more likely to net positive rather than negative.  But the costs, and the risks, are big.  And the changes are really sad, they’re hard to take.  The way people have lived here, probably a majority of your traditional foodways, your traditional lifeways, they will not be able to persist.  There will be a need for incredible mental, spiritual, cultural resilience as people find new ways to live in Alaska.  We are looking at sea-ice free summers by 2050. 

Let’s say it again.  Sea-ice free summers by 2050.  This is in a sea dominated and defined by ice, with ecosystems defined by ice.  The entire food chain is going to change.  Many of the living things that were off the coast of Northern California on up, they’re going to be fighting it out in Alaska’s seas.   There will be a tremendous fight for survival in those seas, and that fight is further complicated by the rapid acidification of the arctic seas.  By 2050 every Arctic sea but the Bering Sea will have become so acidic that it will be really difficult for shelled organisms to build their shells.  You’re talking about clams, crabs- important species.  Anything that uses calcium carbonate will be struggling, because calcium carbonate isn’t a stable compound below a certain pH.  We are talking about running into limits based on fundamental chemistry here.  The system shock will be tremendous.   

Take a moment to let it sink in, the scale of the change.  It’s not predictable, it’s not pleasant.  We are talking raging, teeming life, struggling for survival on an epic scale like we have never witnessed.  Let me get personal for a minute here, you want my advice?  This whole situation is a little high for my risk tolerance, I’d recommend you find a nice place in the Northern Plains or the Midwest.  But, when you think of Alaska, you don’t think low risk tolerance.  I mean, what’s that show, it’s not Most OSHA-compliant Catch, which, man, I would love that show.  No, when people think about Alaska, they think about Deadliest Catch.  Many of the people who love Alaska, who are in Alaska already or who dream of Alaska, you all have your risk tolerance meters set a little higher than mine.  So I hope this information about the massive sea changes is of interest for you, because I am sure there are some opportunities there that are going to pay off really big, for people way braver than me.

Now let’s talk about changes to the land.  Most places along the coast have been experiencing a lot of shoreline erosion.  Up in the far north, say by Drew Point and Cape Halkett, you’ve got shoreline retreat well in excess of 15 ft a year.  Riverline erosion is also a big deal.  Communities have had to relocate due to riverline erosion in the past, and it’s an increasing challenge now.  And unfortunately, we don’t have great models to predict exactly how these erosion patterns are going to play out in the next few decades.  All we know is that it’s a factor to take into your plans.

Land temperatures for 2050, we’re looking at increases of 4-6 degrees F for the lower part of the state, including Juneau and Anchorage, 6-8 for most of the interior, including Fairbanks, and 8-10 for Nome and the far north.  Those temperatures will be a lot higher if we don’t reduce emissions, particularly as we get towards the end of the century.  For high emission projections, add another 2-4 degrees, with the upper range as you get farther north.  So, big picture, whether we reduce emissions or not, your agricultural potential is going to see major changes in Alaska, and you’re going to be looking at significantly longer growing seasons.  A conservative estimate is a 20 day longer growing season by 2050.  That’s a lot more capacity for production.

Let’s take a minute to wind this up.  The changes Alaska will see on the land and in the sea are huge.  Transformational changes.  And for a person with a high risk tolerance, you’re looking at opportunities with those changes.  Big opportunities.  But the scientific community’s ability to make clear predictions, under this level of change, well, it starts to break down a little.  I gave you the most important high-confidence information I could find in this forecast, and I hope you can make good use of it.  Some people out there are going to hear this news about Alaska’s future, and they’re going to dream big.  Wishing you all strength, and wishing you all well.

This is Dr. Schoerning with AR, signing out.  Please help get the message out there.  There is hope.  We can prepare for what’s coming.  Let’s get ready.