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Climate change could enable Alaska to grow more of its own food – now is the time to plan for it

Climate change could enable Alaska to grow more of its own food – now is the time to plan for it

Maps show shifts in Alaska plant hardiness zones from 1980 to 2010

Gardeners in Alaska know that it’s hard to grow big, juicy tomatoes here. However, the climate in Alaska is changing. The far north experiences rapid warmingThis could change.

Anchorage reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit(32 degrees Celsius) For the first time ever in 2019, Arctic sea ice rapidly recedes, The average annual temperature is 3-4 F higher in the state.(1.7-2.2 C) compared to those in the middle of the 20th century.

These climate shifts are causing immense challenges, including structural collapses Long-frozen ground is thawedThere are risks to your life and property. Wildfires are on the rise. Agriculture is one area where climate change may bring some benefits to our state. However, there are many stumblingblocks and uncertainties.

As a climate researcher for the International Arctic Research CenterThe University of Alaska Fairbanks, I recently worked with other scholars, farmers and gardeners to begin investigating our state’s agricultural future. We used Models of global climate change DownscaledTo the local level, combined with insights from Farmers grow vegetables for local market Tribal groups are interested in food security and gardening. Our goal was to take a preliminary look at what climate change might mean for agriculture in communities across the state, from Nome to Juneau and from Utqiaġvik to Unalaska.

Our research suggests planning for the future, as well as future generations, is essential to keep Alaska fed, healthy, and economically stable. To help Alaskans begin to think about the possibilities, we created online tools.

Alaska produces only 5% percent of its food supply. The state could become more food-secure by expanding its agriculture.

Farming in a cold environment

Alaska’s vast size is reflected in its wide range of climate zones, from the temperate and rainy Tongass National Forestto the rapidly growing but still frigid Arctic tundra. The first person to arrive in ocean-moderated Anchorage is Fall frost doesn’t typically arrive until late September, but historically, Average July temperaturesThey were just 59 F (15C). Even this is still warm, compared to 56 F (13C) for Juneau or 51 F (11C) for Nome. Fairbanks is slightly more summery than Juneau, but August is frosty and temperatures drop to -40 F (-40 C).

Alaska’s farming has been characterized by cool summers, short growing season, and cold winters. limited by the state’s cold climate. Although home gardensPopular crops are carrots, potatoes, cabbages and potatoes. Small industry. Recent dataThe U.S. Department of Agriculture only has 541 acres of potatoes, 1,018 acre of vegetables, 22 acres of orchards and 22 acres of fruit trees in our 393-million-acre state.

Crops of the Future

Our climate modeling shows that Alaska crops will experience a drastically changing future by 2100. There will be more frost-free days than ever before, longer summer heat, and colder winter days.

Perhaps the most startling projected shift is in what is known as “growing degree days” – a measurement of the cumulative buildup of daily heat above a crop-specific minimum threshold, across an entire summer.

Barley, for example, is a cold-hardy plant that can sprout at temperatures as low 32 F. However, the speed of its growth still depends on how warm it gets. If the average temperature on a given day is 50 F, 18 degrees above barley’s threshold, that day counts as 18 growing degree days; a 60-degree day would count as 28. Barley won’t reach maturity until it experiences a total of about 2,500 growing degree days above 32 F – a target that could be reached in about 138 days at 50 F, or 89 days at 60 F.

Other thresholds will require a different math equation. Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Indiana wheat won’t grow unless temperatures exceed about 40 F. “Warm” crops such as corn and tomatoes are even fussier, with a threshold of 50 F; for these plants, a 60-degree day represents only 10 growing degree days. These crops are virtually impossible to grow for Alaskans, except in greenhouses.

In the past, I was able to anticipate only about 850 days above 50 F in Fairbanks for a typical summer. That’s not nearly the 1,500 hours that corn would need to mature its ears. But by the year 2100, my grandchildren might anticipate 2,700 growing degree days each year above a 50 F threshold – more than enough to harvest sorghum, soybeans, cucumbers, sweet corn and tomatoes.

We’re also likely to see huge changes in potential perennial crops because of our loss of winter chill. Many gardeners are familiarized USDA Plant Hardiness ZonesThese are based upon the average winter temperature in a given area. We projected Alaska Hardiness Zones using the same categories as USDA.

These maps show dramatic shifts that give an indication of how severe climate change is in the far north. My Fairbanks house is currently in Zone 1 and 2. By the end of the century, it is projected to be in Zone 6 – the current zone in such places as Kansas and Kentucky.

Maps show shifts in Alaska plant hardiness zones from 1980 to 2010

Alaska’s plant hardiness zones, 1980-2010.
Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center

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Maps show Alaska plant hardiness zones from 2010 to 2039

Alaska’s plant hardiness zones, 2010-2039.
Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center

Maps show Alaska plant hardiness zones from 2040 to 2069

Alaska’s plant hardiness zones, 2040-2069.
Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center

Maps show Alaska plant hardiness zones from 2070 to 2100

Alaska’s plant hardiness zones are projected to shift dramatically by 2100. These zones are used for determining which plants are most likely to thrive.
Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center

Food security and supply chains

Alaskan food is only 5%. Here are the products of our farmers and ranchers.. Shipments from the Lower 48 travel great distances to reach Alaska and its dispersed communities. Supply chain disruptions can make Alaskans vulnerable, even if they are not obvious. One barge never arrivesOr One road is blocked.

Growing more fresh foods here would help Alaska economically and nutritionally – but it won’t happen automatically. To achieve significant long-term growth in agriculture, the Alaska Food Policy CouncilHas recommended that a proactive state-funded nutrition education programme be created, developing more Food storage infrastructureOffering financial incentivesFor teaching northern growing methods to residents and expanding agriculture. The council’s research suggests that the state could realize major benefits from investments in training, technology, support for clustered businesses such as packaging and storage, and programs to foster a farming culture.

A tool for farmers as well as gardeners

We created an online tool to make the results from our modeling accessible to rural villages and home gardeners. Alaska Garden Helper, and Fact sheet. Alaskans can select their community, decide which of the above questions to explore, and choose what temperature thresholds are of interest, from “hard frost” (28 F or -2 C) to “warm crops” (50 F or 10 C).

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It provides brief explanations for unfamiliar concepts, such as growing day days. It also contains a list of potential crops, such as barley and beans, and lists of cabbages and corn. Each crop has a minimum value gleaned from published literature for the length of the summer and growing degree days required for that crop’s successful maturation.

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