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EPA-funded study targets wildfire data gaps

Cooper Landing Emergency Services volunteer Danette Snyder works on a fire last May in Cooper Landing.
Courtesy of Rachel Sullivan
Cooper Landing Emergency Services volunteer Danette Snyder works on a fire last May in Cooper Landing.

Researchers with the University of Alaska Anchorage are getting more than $1.3 million to build out wildfire modelling tools for Alaska and monitor air quality, as wildland fires become more common and severe statewide.

Micah Hahn is an epidemiologist who studies the health impacts of climate change in Alaska. She said there are a lot of digital tools, nationwide, that show how climate projections are overlaid with health impacts, like asthma.

But she said in Alaska, there’s not as much data available. She said some maps that chart wildfire risk and impacts leave Alaska off entirely.

“There’s just a big data gap. And we’re trying to close that, a little bit,” Hahn said.

She said a big part of her project is to develop online tools, like flood and fire risk maps, alongside the Alaskans who will be using them so they have the information they need to access federal funding.

“Right now, there is a ton of money coming out from the Biden Administration around climate resilience, and environmental justice, and the Justice 40 initiative” — a federal program designed to address the impacts of climate change in disproportionately impacted communities, Hahn said.

Hahn said to get those funds, communities need data about disaster risk and health impacts to present to the feds.

“That’s the problem with environmental justice issues,” Hahn said. “It perpetuates. Because we don’t have access to this information, we maybe aren’t as competitive and don’t get the money. Which just makes it worse. It’s sort of this vicious cycle. “

She said researchers are also using the funds to set up better air quality monitoring throughout the state. As it stands, she said there aren’t many monitors outside Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks. (She said she’d love to hear from locals who have been involved in tracking air quality monitoring locally, on the Kenai Peninsula.)

She said it’s important to take a look at the complex health impacts of climate change in the communities it hits hardest. Three years ago, Hahn was part of a pilot study on the mental health impacts of the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula.

“In order to develop solutions that actually work on the ground, you sort of have to think about everything at once, as opposed to pulling out one little piece of the puzzle,” Hahn said.

Money for the study comes through the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It’s part of a $4 million pot of funding toward projects studying the health impacts of climate change.

Researchers with Iowa State University are also getting $1,350,000 to study the impacts of climate change on water infrastructure in Alaska Native communities, and the health risks associated with those changes.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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