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Mindful of Climate Change, Alaska DOT Begins Preparing for Stormy Future

By: Bridget Clerkin January 2, 2019
Alaska’s Department of Transportation has become bogged down with work related to the increasing effects of climate change.
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“Don’t like the weather here? Just wait 5 minutes.”

The one-liner has been a classic quip for years, depicting the temperamental atmospheric conditions of Anywhere, USA. But as time goes on, the joke seems less and less funny.

Climate conditions are indeed changing rapidly—and dangerously—around the world. And in America, Alaska will likely be the first place to experience the full effects of a warming planet. This includes a number of extreme weather events caused by climate change that could seriously impact the way its residents get around.

Still, residents of the 49th state are nothing if not resilient in the face of harsh environs, and the state’s agencies also embody that fighting spirit, with the Department of Transportation (DOT) recently investing in a number of ways to keep things running smoothly in the run-up to massive and unpredictable change.

Chief among the department’s new strategies is an array of sophisticated sensors embedded in some roads. The high-tech network is able to accurately read asphalt temperature and relay the information to a central computer, giving state employees a much better idea of when—or whether—to treat the roads with salt or other solutions.

And the scheduling efficiency is essential nowadays, with DOT officials reporting that their department is busier than ever.

Freezing rain events have become a much more persistent problem in the state, the officials say. And February 2017 marked the area’s 6th snowiest in 107 years. But Alaska’s roads are also suffering from an increase in heat, with highways built upon thawing permafrost that are beginning to sink or develop problems the DOT has never dealt with before—and hadn’t anticipated.

One such issue occurred back in 2015, when a bout of bad weather led to severe and almost unceasing flooding along the state’s Dalton Highway, which virtually cut off access to a borough of nearly 10,000 people for weeks.

Yet it seems such scenarios will only get worse—or at least more common—for residents of the Last Frontier State.

A string of consecutive global surveys found that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, which positions Alaska to bear the brunt of the worst kind of trickle-down movement.

Compounding the issue is the consistently shrinking budget of the AK DOT—forcing officials to handle more with less—much less. The latest round of cuts knocked out nearly a quarter of the agency’s operation and maintenance budget.

Yet, dedicated employees are at least on top of the problem, stretching money and imaginations to tackle what they can with what they have. They may be working for the Last Frontier, but Alaska’s DOT will likely be the first to show the rest of the states how to handle a rapidly changing world.

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