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Alaska should prepare for the unexpected, now more than ever

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
NOAA satellite image

As I type, the wind is making the trees dance just starting to rain, again -- big droplets that herald another deluge on the way. I’m keeping a wary eye on the huge, plastic balloon in my yard where I’ve been growing things in all year, fingers crossed. It’s just another chapter in a year of crazy weather, not just here, but all over the state.

Last week, my kids and I and a bunch of other folks went for a trip out on the water in my partner’s skiff. The weather forecast was for moderately snotty weather but as we set off, it didn’t seem like it was materializing. By the time we headed back across, however, conditions had changed considerably. The water, which had been just choppy on the way over, was now rolling with waves and the wind was whipping about. Everything the forecast had predicted was here and we were stuck in the middle of it. It was not fun. And I, for one, was kicking myself for not having heeded the warnings of our weather forecasters. No trip is worth a dip in Alaska’s waters. Period.

It’s a lesson many Alaskans have learned the hard way. But as a state, are we paying attention to the forecast being doled out by scientists studying the changes in the globe’s weather patterns? Their predictions are pretty steadfast -- and it’s not for bikini weather on the North Slope, necessarily.

Climate change predictions certainly can’t claim to be as accurate as the marine weather forecasters. But what they have predicted so far has been represented uncannily in the weather extremes we have seen this year. Those punching numbers into big computers have seen predictions of extreme storms, increased precipitation and colder temperatures in parts of Alaska brought on by the disruption of ocean currents in the high Arctic.

Ask farmers in Mat Su how their summer has been going and they will tell you in no uncertain terms that temperatures have not been conducive to growing. Then there is the Northwest Alaska flooding and the Blizzicane storm last fall to consider, and the record snowfall amounts across much of the state. It’s been a wild year, that’s for sure. And if the scientists have it right, it’s going to continue to be wild.

So my question is -- how do we as a state prepare for this? A recent story in the Washington Post talked about the communities of Kotzebue and Point Hope and how they are taking each day, and it’s unusual weather, as it comes. When their centuries-old ice cellars melted, they moved their fermented whale tail into freezers. It didn’t taste the same, they said, but what can you do. I suppose that’s one strategy. But when villages go for days and even weeks without adequate drinking water because of severe storms, and others suffer extreme coastal erosion, and still others are lobbying to be allowed to move from their traditional homes to new locations, it’s hard to imagine how all this will work out without some sort of strategy.

That’s sort of like ignoring the marine weather forecast when you go out on the water.

Maybe there really is no way to create a contingency plan to deal with the changes predicted and already experienced by Alaskans. Perhaps the best we can do is accept that the weather patterns we have all come to depend on are no longer dependable — that extreme storms are to be expected, as are unprecedented rain and snow events. And at the same time, sea ice, a staple of life in the Arctic, is at an all-time low. If predictions there are to be believed, this will change life as usual for the entire region. Like the Point Hope residents say in the Washington Post story, there is just no guarantee that their children will be able to hunt the way they have. The ice might just be too thin. Some are wagering that the ice could even be gone entirely by 2015. That’s a scary thought.

I suppose we aren’t the first group of humans to be confronted by our inability to control things like weather, despite our handy opposable thumbs. And maybe years of planning and predicting will do little to improve our chances. But I for one am advocating for more public education about what to expect in the future. This isn’t fearmongering, it’s just facing reality. Everything changes, especially the weather. And in a place like Alaska, that can have dire consequences, especially if you aren’t prepared.

Carey Restino is editor of The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared. It is republished here with permission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.