Photo: Daniel Huffman and Eric Cline


Climate Change in Alaska

A closer look at recent climate-related impacts

On the 4th of July, 2019, many communities across Alaska banned fireworks and faced the hottest temperatures in recent history. Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage hit 90 degrees. USGS scientists measured 70-degree water temperatures in Prince William Sound. Anchorage was battling heat waves and smoke-filled skies from the Swan Lake fire on the Kenai Peninsula and across interior Alaska. The amount of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea was lower than any time in recorded history.

It can be difficult to digest so many changes at once and try to understand patterns and processes associated with these phenomena. At Audubon Alaska, we utilize maps as a way to understand the natural (or unnatural) world around us and prioritize our work. In this section, we give you a first glance at our new map on climate change impacts. Each icon represents a climate change-related event during the summer of 2019. Here is a summary:

In Anchorage, visibility was less than a mile with the thick smoke from the Swan Lake fire on the Kenai Peninsula. Warmer temperatures and drier conditions in recent summers have lengthened the fire season across the state. The number of thunderstorms in Alaska is expected to continue to increase with climate change, and this year over half the fires in Alaska were started by lightning.

The new normal is there is no normal when it comes to weather in the north. Some regions experienced record rainfall, while Alaska’s rainforest in Southeast Alaska experienced record drought and high temperatures. Communities relying on hydropower were on water shortage alerts. Drought also impacted water availability for commercial fish processing, an economic driver for many communities across the state.

One impact of the record-setting drought in Southeast Alaska is sudden infestations of hemlock sawflies. Sawflies are small insects with a larval stage that eat needles and leave western hemlock trees looking brown. Although native to Southeast Alaska, they have been found in unusual abundance during the past two summers. Hemlock trees can die from insect infestations.

During this summer, we saw a number of marine animal die-offs: seabirds, gray whales and ice seals. These mass mortality events have been linked to warming trends in Alaska’s waters, changes in sea-ice concentrations, and weather patterns that can impact food and habitat requirements for many species.

Thousands of salmon died across western Alaska and evidence points to warm water temperatures and low water levels causing stress to migrating salmon. Warm water causes increased vulnerability to parasites and low energy. Low water causes migration “bottlenecks” while salmon wait for pulses of rain and high water to swim into spawning streams and rivers.

The communities of Newtok and Shishmareff are actively relocating or planning relocation efforts due to coastal erosion of their current community lands. In total, 31 communities across Alaska are “imminently vulnerable” to relocation due to erosion or flooding.

High density caribou calving areas may shift with climate change. Deeper snow packs are expected across caribou migration routes. These changes in snowfall along with increasing rain on snow events in the Brooks Range make spring travel difficult for migrating caribou. If less food is available because ice and migration times change, the shift in caribou calving ground locations will make caribou more susceptible to predation during their most vulnerable time of year

Map data sources

Seabird mortality data from:

US Fish and Wildlife Service. (2019). 2019 Alaska Seabird Die-off Factsheet. Retrieved 19 September 2019 .

Climate and weather data from:

Thoman, R. & J. E. Walsh. (2019). Alaska’s changing environment: documenting Alaska’s physical and biological changes through observations. H. R. McFarland, Ed. International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Marine mammal mortality data from:

National Marine Fisheries Service; Alaska Region. (2019). Marine Mammal Stranding Network. unpublished data.

Salmon die-off data from:

US Fish and Wildlife, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Local Environmental Observer (LEO) Network, Cook Inlet Keepers, Yukon Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, KYUK-Public Media for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and the US Forest Service

Imminently vulnerable communities data from:

Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development

Wildfire data from:

Alaska Fire Service, Alaska Interagency Coordination Center, and the Bureau of Land Management.

Insect Infestation data from:

US Forest Service and KFSK-Community Radio.

Caribou calving location data from:

Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 2002. Locations of satellite-collared caribou, Porcupine and Central Arctic Herds. Unpublished data. Fairbanks, Alaska.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 2004. Calving locations. Unpublished data. Fairbanks, Alaska.

Griffith, B., D.C. Douglas, N.E. Walsh, D.D. Young, T.R. McCabe, D.E. Russell, R.G. White, R.D. Cameron, and K.R. Whitten. 2002. The Porcupine caribou herd. Pages 8-37 in D.C. Douglas, P.E. Reynolds, and E.B. Rhode, editors. Arctic Refuge coastal plain terrestrial wildlife research summaries. U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, Biological Science Report USGS/BRD/BSR-2002-0001.

Wilson, R. R., A. K. Prichard, L. S. Parrett, B. T. Person, G. M. Carroll, M. A. Smith, C. L. Rea, and D. A. Yokel. 2012. Summer resource selection and identification of important habitat prior to industrial development for the Teshekpuk Caribou Herd in northern Alaska. PLoS ONE 7(11)e48697.

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