DHSS publishes comprehensive report on health impacts of climate change

On Jan. 8, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services released a report about the adverse health impacts of climate change in the state. It is the first comprehensive report for Alaska on this issue.

Based on the current National Climate Assessment predictions, the 77-page document provides an overview of the range of both mental and physical health impacts.

Compared to other U.S. regions, the only Arctic state in the nation is likely to feel the effects of climate change sooner.

“Temperature in Alaska has warmed faster than in the rest of the United States,” Sarah Yoder, lead author of the report and public health specialist at the DHSS said.

It is expected that Alaska’s annual average temperature will increase by 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit until 2050 and by 8 to 9 degrees until 2100. The permafrost layer, which currently makes up 80 percent of Alaska, is predicted to decrease drastically in the years to come. By the end of the century, near-surface permafrost will likely be lost entirely from large parts of the state.

Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Janet Johnston, associate professor of epidemiology and director of the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies at UAA explained that this could pose a series of challenges to Alaskans.

“Our infrastructure is more fragile in areas where there is permafrost,” Johnston said. “As the permafrost melts, water systems and other infrastructure settle and may crack or be otherwise disrupted. Underground storage areas used to keep food supplies frozen may get too warm to keep the food safe.”

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A decrease in food security is a major issue caused by climate change in Alaska. Due to unseasonable weather, the costs of importing food are going to rise while the availability of local food sources decreases as the temperature and Alaskan ecosystems change.

In rural areas, Alaskans often rely on subsistence harvesting, the hunting, fishing, and gathering of natural resources to meet the food need of a population.

“Subsistence harvest is also an important food source for many Alaskans, and changes to animal habitat caused by a changing climate can make this food source unreliable,” Micah Hahn, assistant professor of environmental health within the ICHS said.

Hahn’s work focuses on applied environmental health research aiming to improve the health of Alaskans.

Expected long-term impacts include the increase of droughts, floods and storms, as well as coastal erosion For Alaskans, this means more injuries and accidents, limited access to clean drinking water and waterborne diseases.

Warmer temperatures could result in the introduction of new diseases transmitted by insect bites as well as prolonged seasonal allergies and asthma. While health issues are increasing, the access to health services is predicted to decrease as thawing permafrost, erosion, wildfires and flooding could hamper travel to clinics.

“An area that I think needs more attention is the mental health effects of living in communities that are threatened by the effects of climate change, either due to coastal erosion or effects on subsistence,” Johnston said.

The report names increased anxiety and depression as likely results of the unwanted environmental changes.

In addition to the summary of potential health impacts, the report includes monitoring and adaptation strategies for communities in the state. As an initial step, it advises local communities to identify the challenges that could be most relevant to them and determine the expected timing and extent of their effect.

When developing adaptation strategies, the consideration of regional differences is important.

“The [health] impacts will vary by region, so it is important to understand local context,“ Hahn said. “We’re already noticing changes to sea ice, permafrost and extreme weather and the associated health impacts, but it’s also important to prepare for longer term impacts.”

The ICHS has already been working on a community surveillance system designed to assess health effects of climate change in Alaska to determine health risks for specific communities. One of the findings was an association between injury and unusual weather conditions.

“As a follow-on to that study, we are working with the village of Wainwright on a program to promote safer travel during periods of unseasonable weather,” Johnston said.

Detecting possible risks early could help communities immensely in preparing for, or even preventing, injuries.

“Not all these things are destined to happen — there are things we can do about it,” Yoder said. “A lot of U.S.-focused research has been on the Lower 48. We need to catch up and get awareness out about potential change, because it is going to be different than in other states of the U.S.”

Even though the report highlights the adverse impacts of climate change, it also mentions potential health benefits: increasing temperatures, for instance, could result in fewer injuries linked to cold weather.

Still, the positive impacts are likely to be outweighed by the negative effects.

“It’s really hard to say what will end up happening, but it appears that there’s a very long list of potential adverse impacts of various scales and it seems like the benefits are not quite as large,” Yoder said.

The complete report can be found on the DHSS website at dhss.alaska.gov.