New report targets impact of climate change on the health of Alaskans

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - In a new report issued by the Alaska Division of Public Health, researchers in the state identified several negative health effects that Alaskans could see worsen as the Arctic continues to warm.

Measuring climate change alongside its impact on humans is nothing new, however according to the report, some of the effects that a warming climate could have on Alaskans specifically have not been identified until now.

"Alaska is the only Arctic state in the Nation, Alaskans are likely to face some climate change challenges that will be different than those encountered in other states," the report states.

Among the challenges and adverse conditions Alaskans could face with a warming Arctic, seven key points were detailed in the report: mental health and wellbeing; accidents and injuries; exposure to hazardous materials; food, nutrition, and subsistence activity; infectious diseases; chronic diseases; water and sanitation.

Front and center in the report is the issue of mental health and wellbeing. According to the report, many Alaskans are uniquely positioned to suffer the effects of what's called "solastalgia," which is categorized as a distressing sense of loss felt as a result of unwanted environmental changes.

In a state where many coastal communities are already feeling the effects of coastal erosion and thawing sea ice, the report says residents could feel symptoms such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by the significant environmental shifts.

Accidents and injuries are predicted to continue their rise, according to the report, due largely in part to weather events like wildfires and flooding.

"Flooding is a particular concern of extreme precipitation events and coastal storms, as floods are the second only to heat as the deadliest of all weather hazards in the United States," the report reads.

Wildfires carry into the category of exposure to hazardous materials, as studies have shown a significant deterioration of health in terms of respiratory illness in areas where wildfire smoke is found in higher quantities.

"Over 5 million acres burned in Alaska in 2015, making it one of the worst recorded fire seasons ever. [...] As large wildfires increase, more poor air quality events are likely to occur, potentially leading to exacerbations of pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses," the report states.

Many Alaskans who live subsistence-based lifestyles will not only see effects of the so-called solastalgia, but will also observe food and resource scarcity, as many integral parts of the food chain are already diminishing and changing. "For example, hunters report thinning sea and river ice, which makes harvesting wild foods more dangerous."

Infectious disease is expected to increase as warming trends worsen, and according to the report, diseases like West Nile Virus and Lyme disease could be facilitated in an Alaska with increased air and water temperatures.

The report also says that not only infectious disease, but also chronic illness is expected to rise. "Climate change is predicted to affect allergies and respiratory health as higher temperatures and changes in precipitation influence the abundance, seasonality, and distribution of aeroallergens," the report said.

Water-borne diseases could also rise, according to data presented in the report, after resources for water security dwindle, and the methods on which many communities rely are already suffering from coastal erosion.

The report can be read in full, on the DHHS website.

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