Climate change and rural aviation are major issues in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski addressed both during her visit to the region last week.
Murkowski visited Quinhagak as part of her trip. It’s one of 56 villages in the region and sits on the coast near Kuskokwim Bay. Like many Y-K Delta communities, it’s experiencing erosion from rising sea levels and melting permafrost, and is struggling to maintain its gravel airstrip.
“[I] had an opportunity to look at the impacts of erosion and some of the issues that they are dealing with, whether it’s their airport or sewer lagoon, but the impacts to infrastructure that will be necessary to review,” Murkowski said.
The Yup’ik community is also the site of a massive archaeological dig. Quinhagak is trying to save its heritage, thousands of artifacts from the Bow and Arrow Wars of the 1600s, from washing into the sea. Murkowski says that she is focused on tackling both rural aviation and climate change. For rural aviation, she says that Congress just passed legislation that would prioritize airport construction in “cold weather” locations.
“We just don’t have enough time in the summer season, and airports are being used day in and day out,” Murkowski said.
The legislation makes sure that safety equipment arrives more quickly at rural airports, and allows cargo planes in Alaska to deliver fully charged lithium ion batteries.
“These are often used in things like pacemakers, so well, if you can’t get these fully charged batteries out to the region on an airplane, how do folks get this necessary medical equipment?” Murkowski said. “So that’s a very specific Alaska exemption.”
Maintaining a rural airstrip also means battling melting permafrost, which can cause dips in the runway. And of course, some Y-K Delta villages like Quinhagak and Newtok face another big infrastructure problem: erosion, which is expensive to fix.
KYUK asked Murkowski if Congress plans to define climate change as an emergency under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That would make it easier for communities like Newtok and Quinhagak, who are facing relocation and major infrastructure problems because of erosion linked to climate change, to get federal funding to replace buildings or move. Murkowski did not think that was a good idea.
“When you think about climate change and the impacts, these are slow-moving disasters. We can see it coming,” Murkowski said. “But the reality is, from my viewpoint, is that FEMA is not the best entity for addressing the potential disaster that you can see coming.”
She said that FEMA is an agency focusing on responding to disasters, not trying to prevent or mitigate them. She thinks that it makes more sense for an agency like the Army Corps of Engineers to take preventative measures to contend with climate change. KYUK asked Murkowski if she thought that was possible with the current administration; the Trump administration is trying to roll back major environmental regulations that would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
“If what we’re talking about is a wholesale kind of an overhaul of a department that would allow for prevention, adaptation, and mitigation focused specifically on climate change in the two years of the Trump administration, I don’t see that happening,” Murkowski said.
But she says that the solution could happen with a little different phrasing.
“If you are an administration that says ‘well we want to be smarter with taxpayer dollars,’ then you work on infrastructure and technologies that will, for instance, be more enduring when you build out an airstrip,” Murkowski said. “For many in this administration, it’s how you talk about getting to the same goal. I think that’s very important.”
Murkowksi says that there are plans underway in agencies to help build more “resilient” infrastructure that will withstand the impacts of climate change: from more hurricanes, to rising sea levels, to melting permafrost.