Climate change will cause billions of dollars in damage to roads, buildings, airports, railroads and pipeline infrastructure in Alaska, particularly if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, a new study found.

The findings suggest it would be prudent for local, state and federal governments and businesses to adapt infrastructure or design new infrastructure with climate change considerations in mind.

“We know that these changes can come with increased societal risks and may also have economic implications,” the lead author of the study, April Melvin said in an email. Melvin wrote the paper for U.S. EPA as a science and technology policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It appeared last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To date, few studies have focused specifically on the economic impacts of such changes in Alaska, Melvin said. It will be expensive to adapt to the changes, the research found, but spending money to save money will likely be a good investment in Alaska and other states facing sea-level rise and shifting precipitation patterns.

“With this study, we aimed to provide updated estimates of what the potential damages to Alaska public infrastructure from climate change could be and identify how adaptation might influence the costs,” she said.

Melville's research found that depending on the emissions scenario, Alaska could see climate-related damage ranging from $4.2 billion to $5.5 billion through the end of the century. Costs drop to an estimated $2.3 billion to $2.9 billion if adaptation measures are factored in.

Alaska already has seen some of the most dramatic changes in the U.S. from global warming, the National Climate Assessment notes. They include earlier spring snow melt, reduced sea ice, widespread glacier retreat, warmer permafrost, drier landscapes, and more extensive insect outbreaks and wildfires.

Already, many Native communities in vulnerable coastal areas with limited access to roads or other infrastructure are struggling with how to pay to move — or adapt to their changing environment.

The paper notes that the distribution of damage varies across the state. The largest source of damage was projected for interior and south-central Alaska. Flooding associated with changes in precipitation accounted for about 45 percent of the damage, no matter which emissions scenario was considered.

The report also suggest substantial damage to buildings from melting permafrost.

Much of the focus on climate change impacts on infrastructure in Alaska has been on permafrost thaw, Melvin said, and for good reason. Permafrost thaw can cause extensive damage to infrastructure, and damages are expected to increase with future warming.

“But, our findings suggest that damages caused by precipitation, especially precipitation-caused flooding, may also have a significant impact on the state, and these damages would extend beyond the portions of the state underlain by permafrost and also affect some of the more densely populated areas,” she said.

Proactive investment in adaptation could significantly reduce the financial impacts. That includes investing in road drainage systems to reduce flooding impacts from increased precipitation, the scientists found.

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.