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Rural Alaskans pay high price for housing stability as melting sea ice, warming climate threatens area

Melting sea ice as a result of climate change is threatening the homes of those living in rural Alaska.

Efforts are underway to provide adequate housing that not only meets the challenges of climate change but also deals with the high construction costs and lack of local labor in rural Alaska, according to the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks.

Melting permafrost is destabilizing the foundations of homes and will only get worse with continued warming.

Permafrost is the layer of soil or bedrock beneath the Earth's surface where the temperature has been below freezing continuously from a few to several thousand years.

In places with coastal erosion and thawing permafrost, there is the extra challenge of building on unstable and uncertain soils, Molly Rettig of the Cold Climate Housing Research Center said. An all-local crew built two prototype homes in 2013 in Atmautluak in southwestern Alaska.

"In response, we've developed adjustable foundations and moveable foundations that can be relocated if need be," she added. "But this adds cost, of course."

Cost is a problem because of shipping, logistics and labor, Rettig said.

A home that could cost $200 per square foot on the road system in Fairbanks could cost twice as much in rural Alaska because of shipping, logistics and labor, especially if you bring in outside labor, she said.

The housing authority on the North Slope built a couple dozen homes based on the center's design to address a huge housing need. The village of Quinhagak in southwestern Alaska has built five more homes based on an octagon house prototype built in 2010, Rettig said.

Overall warming in the Arctic has accelerated over the past 20 years, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Brett Anderson said.

"We have also see a steady decline in sea ice extent and volume across the region this century," Anderson said. "As more ice melts out during the summer months, more of the darker ocean waters are exposed, which in turn allows more heat to be absorbed. There are no indications that these trends will level off or reverse."

President Barack Obama highlighted the Alaskan climate change problems during a trip to the state in October 2015.

During Obama's flight to Kotzebue from the fishing village of Dillingham, Air Force One descended so that he could get a closer look at the small village of Kivalian, where residents voted to relocate the village as it sinks into the water.

The future does not look good for those who are dependent on the sea ice, such as the native population and certain mammals, Anderson said.

For the second year in a row, the Arctic sea ice extent has reached a record low maximum, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center.

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