Kenai could be corn belt of the future as climate change continues

Feb 20, 2020

Average sea surface temperature departure from normal, December 2019.
Credit Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy

If you've lived on the Kenai Peninsula for any length of time, you've probably noticed impacts of climate change, and that trend will irrevocably continue.

Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, gave a presentation at Kenai Peninsula College last week highlighting the rapidly accelerating pace of change.

"We're living through chaotic times. Expect the unexpected, whether it's how much snow we're going to get this winter, are we going to have sustained cold or what's going to happen with our ecosystems in these big changes," Thoman said.


Thoman brought data from around Alaska — decreasing sea ice, warming ocean temperatures, changes in land and marine mammal ranges, a later winter onset, an earlier fire season. He also asked the audience for their observations of change on the Kenai.

"I think it's really important that you hear from your neighbors about how things are changing, it isn't just some old white guy at UAF telling you. That you're seeing this with your own two eyeballs, believe your eyes. Believe your own experience," he said.

Some observers reported changes in seasonality, while others noted new phenomena.

SFX: "My first 20 years on the peninsula, I only saw lighting I believe once and heard thunder twice. The last five years, it's been almost like being in the Midwest again."

SFX: "I've noticed that the Kenai River runs bank full all summer and it used to fluctuate."

SFX: "When our daughters were a lot younger, about 30 years ago, when Halloween came around, it almost used to be pretty standard that you put the princess outfit on top of the winter clothes and that's what they wore. This Halloween, you could go out and it was like you were in Vermont or something. It was not cold at all."

Thoman says to continue to expect change. Even if the developed world dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions overnight, the global heating trend wouldn't stop overnight, especially in Alaska.  

"It's no surprise to you when I tell you that since the Earth's surface is 70 percent ocean, that most of the excess heat from the increasing greenhouse gasses doesn't go into the atmosphere, it goes into the water. And what's water? It's dense. It takes a long time to heat up, it takes a long time to cool down. There is so much heat in the oceans right now, if some Lovecraftian demon cleans the Earth of all us people tonight, the climate will continue to warm for decades," Thoman said.

The Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy models climate change forecasts for the state to help plan for the impacts to come. They model a future assuming an active mitigation scenario — meaning the developed world dramatically and immediately limits carbon emissions — and a worst-case scenario where no changes are made. 

"Let's look at the 2070s,” he said. “Even in an active mitigation scenario, Kenai-Soldotna winds up with an annual average temperature that's similar to Homer now. In a worst-case scenario, you wind up with an average temperate similar to Haines. That would be wild ecological changes."

Change is not easy, but that's not to say there won't be opportunities, as well.

"There could be benefits. For instance, you could be Alaska's corn belt. It won't be very long before it's warm enough to grow corn. … In the next 25 years, maybe corn is your next crop. By the time we get to late in the century, it will be easily warm enough, and any other warm-weather crops," he said.

Thoman has heard the skeptics about humanity's impact on climate change. Yes, the Earth has had ice ages and warming phases before humans were around. Yes, there is volcanic and other natural activity. But Thoman says no natural cause explains the speed and extent to which climate change is occurring. Factoring in increases in greenhouse gasses, primarily carbon dioxide through burning fossil fuels, shifts climate models to what we're experiencing today.

"If we only include natural forces — things like volcanoes, things like sunspots, things like deep ocean circulations — without accounting for what people are doing, we can't, using the scientific method of observations, explanation, prediction, get to this," he said.

Thoman acknowledged that there's nothing individual Alaskans can do to impact climate change, other than weigh in politically for policy change. Our job will be to adapt.

"As Alaskans, we've been through change before. We can do this if we stick together and if we don't let intentional divisiveness cloud our judgment, we'll find a way," he said.

The Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy has research, forecasts, historical data and a lot more on its website, uaf-accap.org.