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Pacific Northwest - The Land

Pacific Coast The name Alaska is derived from the Aleut word "Aleyska," meaning "great land." Coastal southern Alaska is clearly a part of the North Pacific Coast, but it must be viewed as somewhat separate from the rest of the region. No railroad connects Alaska with the more populated parts of the continent, and only a single, long highway, part of which remains unpaved, connects coastal southern Alaska through interior Canada to the rest of the United States. People in the Panhandle of southeastern Alaska are crowded by coastal mountains onto a narrow shoreline rarely more than a few hundred meters wide.

Alaska is the United States’ only Arctic region. Its marine, tundra, boreal (northern) forest, and rainforest ecosystems differ from most of those in other states and are relatively intact. Alaska is home to millions of migratory birds, hundreds of thousands of caribou, some of the world’s largest salmon runs, a significant proportion of the nation’s marine mammals, and half of the nation’s fish catch.

Alaska is home to 40% (229 of 566) of the federally recognized tribes in the United States. The small number of jobs, high cost of living, and rapid social change make rural, predominantly Native, communities highly vulnerable to climate change through impacts on traditional hunting and fishing and cultural connection to the land and sea. Because most of these communities are not connected to the state’s road system or electrical grid, the cost of living is high, and it is challenging to supply food, fuel, materials, health care, and other services.

This portion of the region looks to air and sea transportation for connection with the rest of the world, which leads to an even greater sense of detachment than might be typical of the rest of the region, a greater sense of separation from the activities of the rest of the country, and an economy of high prices resulting from scarcity and high transportation costs. Many believe that the Alaskan economy is based heavily on minerals, lumbering, and fishing. In fact, the federal government, primarily the Department of Defense, is the dominant employer in the state. Even the petroleum development boom on the state's North Slope has only modified, not eliminated, this orientation.

Energy production is the main driver of the state’s economy, providing more than 80% of state government revenue and thousands of jobs. Continuing pressure for oil, gas, and mineral development on land and offshore in ice-covered waters increases the demand for infrastructure, placing additional stresses on ecosystems. Land-based energy exploration will be affected by a shorter season when ice roads are viable, yet reduced sea ice extent may create more opportunity for offshore development. Climate also affects hydropower generation.

There are more than 70 potentially active volcanoes in Alaska. Several have erupted in recent times. The most violent volcanic eruption of the century took place in 1912 when Novarupta Volcano erupted, creating the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes which is now part of Katmai National Park. Of the 20 highest peaks in the United States, 17 are in Alaska. Denali, the highest peak in North America, is 20,320 ft. above sea level. Denali, the Indian name for the peak, means "The Great One."

Over the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the United States, with state-wide average annual air temperature increasing by 3°F and average winter temperature by 6°F, with substantial year-to-year and regional variability. Most of the warming occurred around 1976 during a shift in a long-lived climate pattern (the Pacific Decadal Oscillation [PDO]) from a cooler pattern to a warmer one. The PDO has been shown to alternate over time between warm and cool phases. The underlying long-term warming trend has moderated the effects of the more recent shift of the PDO to its cooler phase in the early 2000s. The overall warming has involved more extremely hot days and fewer extremely cold days.

Because of its cold-adapted features and rapid warming, climate change impacts on Alaska are already pronounced, including earlier spring snowmelt, reduced sea ice, widespread glacier retreat, warmer permafrost, drier landscapes, and more extensive insect outbreaks and wildfire. Sea ice is rapidly receding and glaciers are shrinking. Thawing permafrost is leading to more wildfire, and affecting infrastructure and wildlife habitat. Rising ocean temperatures and acidification will alter valuable marine fisheries.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:00 ZULU