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Community Perspective

Melting permafrost a matter of climate justice

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As global temperatures continue to rise, permafrost and sea ice levels are declining.

This has a disproportionate effect on communities of Alaska Natives, who ironically contribute relatively little to the problem, yet reap so many of the consequences. The consequences include food insecurity due to melting permafrost cellars, housing issues due to unstable land, and public health issues as greenhouse gasses and bacteria are released. One step we can take is to build an infrastructure capable of sustaining an all-electric future to help offset the emissions creating the root issue — climate change.

As permafrost melts it can unleash ancient microbes and bacterias that can make people and animals sick. This is because permafrost holds generations of gasses and carbon that is released as the layers thaw. The release of carbon and methane from the permafrost goes to further fuel climate change by emitting more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Not only that, permafrost can contain ancient microbes and bacteria that can introduce disease and illness for animals and humans.

As permafrost melts, it has the potential to raise sea level by up to 4 inches at its worst. This may not seem all that great, but those few inches can lead to major flooding, and further contribute to coastal erosion that so many are familiar with. In Alaska this has translated to underground ice cellars flooding with water, wasting a season’s worth of food that relies on the cold temperature to preserve various meats and perishables.

Lastly, this rising sea level can harm underground aquifers and drinking water for humans and wildlife. Why should we care? The effects of melting permafrost aren’t solely felt by Alaskans. It will hold worldwide consequences as the great quantity of ice continues to thaw.

To combat this, we as a country need to commit to reduce and mitigate carbon and greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling the fire, so to speak. It’s not enough to make personal changes, although it does help make a paradigm shift and begin conversations. Instead, we need corporate reform.

Many automotive manufacturers like General Motors and Honda have made commitments to developing an all-electric future, with the majority, if not their entire consumer fleets electric. GM has even developed a somewhat universal platform called “ultium” which will be the underpinnings for many new GM vehicles, and also the newly announced 2024 Honda Prologue electric SUV. Furthermore, this kind of universal platform could help to streamline production, further eliminating waste and industrial emissions.

Until major steps are made to restore the stability of permafrost, it will continue to degrade affecting Alaska Natives and polar region residents disproportionately. This is a major climate justice issue that isn’t communicated effectively enough — leaving many communities having to relocate their generations-old homes for solid ground.

Jimmy Stempien is a student entering the University of Alaska Fairbanks, majoring in communications and media studies with a minor in environmental studies.

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