Alaskan Scientists Say Climate Change Will Affect Public Health

ANCHORAGE (CN) — Epidemiologists at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services released a report Monday outlining the potential impacts of climate change on the health of Alaskans.

The 77-page report, “Assessment of the Potential Health Impacts of Climate Change in Alaska,” highlights physical and mental health challenges that Alaskans face already due to warming temperatures and major weather events related to climate change.

“Because Alaska is the only Arctic state in the nation, Alaskans are likely to face some climate change challenges that will be different than those encountered in other states,” the report states.

A major difference is that permafrost underlies 80 percent of Alaska. Until recent years, this was stable, frozen ground, upon which Alaskans built their cities in towns.

Complicating the challenges, 90 percent of Alaska Native villages are on the coast, which has been eroding more rapidly due to more frequent and intense storms, strong tides and rising sea levels, in addition to the thawing permafrost.

Lead author Sarah Yoder wrote that previous studies of climate change in Alaska focused on expected changes to the physical environment and ecosystem, not on how those changes could affect human health.

“This report is one of the only reports, really, nationwide that provides a statewide overview of the potential health impacts of climate change,” Yoder told the Anchorage Daily News.

“While there were analyses of the potential health impacts of climate change in certain Alaska communities, a detailed statewide report did not exist.”

Temperatures in Alaska have warmed faster than in the rest of the United States. In November last year weather station instruments were disrupted in the northernmost city in the United States, Utqiaġvik, formerly known as Barrow. The data was flagged for recheck because it registered rapid temperature changes beyond what scientists and mathematicians had calculated, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

“This report is one resource for communities as they work to identify potential health problems as a result of our state’s changing climate and as they prepare to address and prevent emerging health issues,” Alaska’s chief medical officer and director of the Division of Public Health, Dr. Jay Butler said in a statement.

The report provides an extensive list of possible health problems in eight categories related to climate change: mental health and wellbeing, accidents and injuries, exposure to potentially hazardous materials, food, nutrition and subsistence activity, infectious diseases and toxins from microorganisms, noncommunicable and chronic diseases, water and sanitation and health services infrastructure.

There may be increased injuries from accidents caused by thawing ice and permafrost, flooding, major storms and wildfires.

A warming climate may bring greater exposure to infectious diseases such as West Nile virus from mosquitoes and Lyme disease from deer ticks, as the pests survive in areas previously inhospitable to them.

Increasing instances of unsuccessful subsistence hunting due to changed migration patterns of game species could lead to food scarcity in rural communities and increased anxiety and depression as a result of more weather-related disasters changing the Alaskan way of life.

“We wanted to get ahead of the potential health impacts of climate change in Alaska and make sure we could provide a big-picture perspective on what we can expect if the (National Climate Assessment) prediction models are accurate,” Dr. Joe McLaughlin, a state epidemiologist, told the Anchorage Daily News.

The Alaska Division of Public Health epidemiology section began working on the report in 2015. Authors conducted their assessment using the Health Impact Assessment framework based on National Climate Assessment predictions for Alaska.

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