Is it really possible to adapt to climate change? Alaskans are trying new building techniques to minimize the damage from thawing permafrost, but these measures are pricey and not foolproof.
FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Alaskans are learning to build differently to minimize the damage of global warming.
"We take a very practical approach to adaptation," says Jack Hebert,president of the non-profit Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks. He and colleagues try to avoid building on permafrost, land that is frozen underground but can thaw when temperatures are too high. Since Alaska's temperatures have risen twice as fast as those in the lower 48, more permafrost is thawing, ruining roads and houses.
ALASKA SINKS: Climate change thaws permafrost
When permafrost can't be avoided, his center designs homes that have adjustable foundation piers and can be moved if local conditions deteriorate. To reduce fossil fuel emissions, the center promotes lower
Roads are also being rebuilt with the same 8-foot-by-4-foot sheets of polystyrene insulation used in walls. Near Fairbanks, federal and state officials are spending an extra 10% to lay 4 inches of insulation underneath Goldstream Road, which was damaged by thawing, before repaving it.
"Most of Alaska's infrastructure ... could be maintained, but it will take much more money," says Vladimir Romanovsky, who runs the University of Alaska's Permafrost Laboratory. He says the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which was built partly above ground with refrigerated supports, can afford thaw-preventing devices, but tribal villages cannot. "It you have money, you can survive. It not, you have to go somewhere else," he says. Several Alaskan villages are seeking funds to relocate.
As temperatures rise, more of Alaska's land -- known as permafrost, because it's perenially frozen underground -- is thawing and causing billions of dollars in damages, reports USA TODAY's Wendy Koch. Wendy Koch, USA TODAY
Cathy Richard, who owns a home in the North Pole suburb of Fairbanks, has devised her own stopgap measures to deal with the cracks left from thawing permafrost. She's filled in fissures in her lawn so her kids — ages 5, 10 and 15 — can safely play outside.
She walks carefully when heading into the woods around her one-acre property. "The ground is so uneven ... it can step up 6 to 8 inches sometimes."
Since the backyard deck was heaving so much, she and her husband removed its railings, which were tugging on the house, as well as its steps, which were ripping up the ground. "It was just a mess," she recalls.
They built sturdy new steps, but rather than attach them to the deck, they let them rest on the ground. "The deck can go up and down all it wants," she says, "and we don't have to worry about it."