John's World: Is Alaska the Next Big Player in American Agriculture?

John's World 11/30/19
A shift in weather patterns is aiding agriculture in Alaska. Since the state imports 95% of its food, there is strong incentive to gamble on new ag ventures. John Phipps explains in John's World. ( Pixabay )

I expect this winter at farm meetings there will be lots of you-think-that’s-bad conversations about weather we endured all across the Midwest this year. Let me give you one suggestion however: if you find yourself talking to someone from Alaska, don’t even go there. Alaska has been on a multi-year weather paroxysm as the Arctic heats twice as fast as the rest of our warming world. Some temperature records were smashed by five degrees this July, such as Anchorage which unbelievably burst through the 90˚ mark. This year alone had at least two remarkable weather patterns. The first we have talked about some – our globally unique cool spot in the middle of the US. This is what spawned relentless rains for too many. But the second was something few of us paid attention to: Alaska baked all year. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist) Here is what last winter looked like. Keep your eye on rosy colors in the upper left. This is last summer. And now the most recent global summary, autumn 2019. To be sure, other places like Australia, India, and Europe had a year of records and climate disasters, but right now I want to concentrate on the US.

This is not a one-off occurrence. Alaska has been in the forefront of adapting to a warmer world. One big reason is the permafrost thaw. I thought my local roads were bad, for example, but this is what happens when ground that has not thawed for thousands of years goes to mush. It has created the phenomenon called drunken forests as trees lose their anchors. Those forests also now represent a massive fire hazard like California on steroids. Meanwhile Alaskans have been forced to reroute and even haul in snow for the famed Iditarod sled race.

Alaska has tried for decades to develop more agriculture. Residents have long known that the near-endless sunlight of sub-arctic summers can accelerate fruit and vegetable production, but there simply wasn’t a long enough growing season to take advantage. Until now. Since the state imports 95% of its food, especially vegetables and fruit, and warming temperatures are messing with game and fish habitats and migration patterns, there is strong incentive to gamble on new ag ventures.

I agree the Corn Belt had a difficult weather year, but our friends in Alaska are probably not impressed. I can hear them saying as we complain, “Yeah, that was tough, but hold my beer…”