Alaska is on Fire

Wildfires, extreme heat and a budget impasse add urgency to the climate change debate.

My home state of Alaska is on fire—both figuratively and literally. More than 2 million acres of forest have burned this year, making 2019 one of the worst fire years Alaska has ever experienced. Already, more acreage has burned than in all of the devastating fires in California last year.

These fires are direct evidence of climate change, which is causing thawing tundra, drying forests and thunderstorms that cause or exacerbate the fires. They also contribute directly to making climate change worse by releasing millions of tons of stored greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In addition, the permafrost and soil in Alaska’s ecosystems store huge quantities of carbon. These fires can also release that carbon in the form of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The fires are happening against a backdrop of incredible change in Alaska. First, of course, it has been really, really hot here. The July sea ice extent was a record low. Record high water temperatures have been linked to heart attacks in salmon. Walrus are showing up earlier and earlier along the Arctic coast. Taken together, these changes are resulting in what one reporter calls “ecological havoc” in the Bering Sea.

Alongside these literal fires, the figurative ones amount to an existential crisis about the future of the state. Our governor and legislature have been unable to agree on an operating budget. In June, the governor vetoed more than $440 million dollars from the budget that the legislature had passed. The vetoes reduced or eliminated funding for the arts, education, public broadcasting, senior benefits, Medicaid, the Village Public Safety Officer program and other programs. The governor even vetoed funding for the Ocean Ranger cruise ship pollution inspection program, which was funded entirely using fees paid by the cruise ship industry.

The biggest cuts, however, were from the University of Alaska system. The governor vetoed $130 million on top of a $5 million cut already in the budget. The resulting $135 million cut amounts to almost 41% of the state’s funding for the university. University officials have said that the cuts would be devastating.

These cuts to the university system bring the literal and figurative fires together. The University of Alaska is a leader in climate change research. The budget cuts and uncertainty are already affecting research and could significantly curtail future efforts, which would mean that we lack the scientific bases needed for good management of ocean and terrestrial resources under changing conditions. It also could cause our accomplished scientists and professors to leave, which is bad for future scientific efforts and for the state overall.

Hopefully, none of this will come to fruition. The legislature recently passed a new version of the budget that reinstates most of the funding for the university and other programs. It is now up to the governor to put out the figurative fire and for all of us to find ways to take meaningful action to address climate change in order to help reduce the threat from the literal fires.

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