Report: The impact of climate change on Alaskans’ physical and mental health

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has released a 77-page review of the health impacts Alaskans may face in the coming years due to climate change. The report touches on climate change’s effects on mental health, infectious diseases, likelihood of accidents and injuries, exposure to hazardous materials, and effects on health services infrastructure.

Alaska is a unique position in that it is the only state Arctic state in the nation and has experienced faster changes in air and water temperatures than the rest of the country. The environmental, historical, and regional impacts of climate change in Alaska have received attention in the past, but this is the first statewide review about human health impacts.

According to the report, there are a variety of ways in which climate change negatively impacts health. Permafrost is found in over 80 percent of Alaska, and as temperatures warm, and permafrost thaws, soil becomes increasingly susceptible to erosion. This puts coastline communities at risk for relocation and infrastructure at risk for damage, all of which can contribute to psychosocial stress. Rising sea levels similarly contribute to these risks along the coast.

Damage to infrastructure and thawing permafrost can also lead to the exposure of harmful materials such as asbestos, lead, or other contaminants. Climate change impacts air pollutant concentrations via temperature, humidity, wind, and precipitation, putting Alaskans at risk of new and increased exposure to pollution and hazardous materials.

Climate change also impacts Alaska’s rural economic system by changing the way food is grown.

“Due to the specialized dietary patterns in Alaska with a heavy reliance on subsistence resources, changes to key food sources could lead to food insecurity and associated health consequences.

Many Alaska communities have already reported various changes to subsistence harvest, such as salmon die-offs related to warmer ocean waters, shifting caribou migration, decline and range change in sea mammals, and increased variability in berry harvest”

The report also describes the feeling of solastalgia — a new term for “the distressing sense of loss that people experience as a result of unwanted environmental changes that occur close to one’s home.” Solastalgia is linked with anxiety, depression, or PTSD for some of who have been affected by extreme weather events like floods, forest fires, or storm surges.

The report recommends several adaptation strategies including creating climate change advisory groups, developing Small Community Emergency Response Plans, developing statewide surveillance systems, and promoting climate change research.

The entire report can be found here.