The wettest part of Alaska is currently experiencing something unusual: extreme drought. Last week, the region, which has been experiencing drought conditions for almost two years, was upgraded by the United States Drought Monitor to a D3—meaning extreme drought, the second-highest level of drought severity measured by the United States Drought Monitor. The affected areas include the southernmost region of Southeast Alaska, including Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island, Wrangell, and Metlakatla.
According to the CBC, this is the first time these conditions have been recorded in this part of Alaska by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a mapping system that was created in 1999 to document droughts across the country.
The D3 categorization highlights the importance of the way we assess drought, says Rick Thoman, an Alaska climate specialist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. "It's not just about precipitation shortfalls, it's that intersection between precipitation and the impacts that it causes to human endeavors and the non-human environment."
These unprecedented conditions have raised questions about current and future climate change impacts across Alaska and the Arctic more broadly.
Southern Alaska's Drought Is Raising Consumer Costs
The drought has had negative economic consequences for surrounding communities. Many communities in the region rely on small hydropower projects, so the lack of water has forced communities to use back-up diesel generators. Additionally, potable water access has sometimes been restricted. The high costs of back-up generators and periods of water restriction have been passed onto households and businesses, Thoman says.
Low precipitation previously plagued the region in the mid-1990s. But at that point, oil was cheaper (so diesel generators were likewise less expensive to run) and big industries in the region, such as large-scale timber and sawmill operations, assumed the costs so there weren't the same rising prices for individuals, households, or businesses, Thoman explains.
While the impact of drought on some communities has worsened as a result of societal and industry changes in the area, the damaging ecological impacts remain the same, according to Thoman: This drought has the potential to negatively affect forest health and salmon populations for years to come.
Did Climate Change Cause the Drought?
In the case of southeast Alaska, however, climate change is probably not to blame for the drought, Thoman says. In fact, long-range, multi-decade climate models anticipate higher precipitation overall in southern Alaska (and other high-latitude areas), he says. And while the long-term average is increasing, there will still be unusually wet or dry seasons within those projections.
Higher levels of precipitation could be damaging for southern Alaska. Because of global warming, more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow, which has cascading effects for the regional ecosystem, especially when it comes to water availability and the ecosystems of rivers and streams.
While climate change may not be the direct cause of the recent bout of drier conditions, climate change has affected circulation patterns in Alaska, which in turn, affect precipitation levels, according to Martin Stuefer, director of the Alaska Climate Research Center and the State Climate Office, and associate research professor in atmospheric sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
In general, because precipitation rates vary widely among Alaska's different climate zones, "it is really hard to make an average statement," Stuefer says. Currently, in the southeastern part of the state, the air flow is mostly south and north (whereas before the flows were east and west) and, as a result, winds are pushing humid air less strongly into the mountains, which has resulted in less precipitation. Changes in jet stream and air flow have more localized effects, which again make it difficult to generalize about precipitation—or drought—in the state.
Regardless of its cause, it will take time for the region to recover from the drought's damaging effects. The drought "has been going on for the better part of two years, and it's going to take more than a couple of months to climb out of that," Thoman says. "They need a good wet season in fall and early winter to recharge things."
Other Ways Climate Change Is Already Impacting Alaska
Alaska is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of a process known as Arctic amplification. During Arctic amplification, "there is feedback between the ocean and the atmosphere," a process that has been accelerated as sea ice levels decrease, Stuefer explains. Ultimately, he says, there are "significantly higher temperatures and warmer trends in the Arctic and in Alaska, than anywhere else."
The National Climate Assessment's most recent report dedicated an entire chapter to Alaska, compiling recent reports detailing the impacts of a state that is on the "frontline of climate change." The report's conclusions have been affirmed by a slew of new studies documenting Alaska's changing environment.
A new study published on Wednesday documents the extraordinarily high death toll for local seabirds—particularly tufted puffins—since thousands of carcasses began washing on the beaches of St. Paul Island, Alaska, in 2016. Ecosystem changes as a result of climate change are likely the cause of millions of bird deaths, the study finds.
A study published in April found that the Arctic is heating up 2.4 times faster than the Northern Hemisphere average, which has had devastating impacts across the ecosystem. Another study published that same month found that global warming is affecting sea ice formation and transport in the Arctic region, which will affect Arctic Ocean ecosystems.
While the impacts of warming are currently amplified in the Arctic, the rest of the world is not immune, Stuefer advises. "We see the change [and] we see it first," Stuefer says. "But we are not decoupled from the rest of the world."
For some, decreased sea ice has been seen as an opportunity for further economic development, such as increasing transportation and cruises in new, ice-free areas and more drilling in the Arctic (plans that President Donald Trump has strongly endorsed). Environmentally speaking, however, "[t]he risks associated with those developments are high," Stuefer warns.
Beyond these shifts, a rapidly changing climate—which has reverberating impacts on local ecosystems—has the potential to undermine ways of life for indigenous people across Alaska.