Climate change research threatened by University of Alaska budget cuts

Gov. Mike Dunleavy slashed university funding by $130 million, alarming Alaskans, scientists and climate specialists.


Researchers set fire to escaping methane gas trapped beneath a frozen pond near the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus. The naturally occurring phenomenon is exacerbated by thawing permafrost and increased plant decay caused by global warming. Climate research is threatened by a budget cut slicing almost half of the university’s state funding.
Todd Paris/University of Alaska Fairbanks

Earlier this month in Juneau, state Rep. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, stood in front of 37 Alaska legislators to protest Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s $444 million cut from the state budget. A third of the rollbacks affect the University of Alaska, he noted, and they will “eviscerate” the system. “The research that we’re doing … is world-leading,” said Wool. “This kind of cut will turn that around and regress this institution that we have — that we need.” His conclusion was blunt: “This cut is unconscionable, and I protest it with everything I have.”

But Wool and other like-minded lawmakers were unable to muster the 45 votes necessary to reverse the proposed budget cut, leaving citizens and the University of Alaska in a state of panic. The University of Alaska stands to lose $130 million — about a 41% slash in state support to the university system, and 17% of UA’s overall budget. It is one of the biggest annual cuts to public higher education by a state in history, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. 

And the impacts of the funding cuts aren’t limited to Alaska. Researchers throughout the country depend heavily on the University of Alaska system, with its prime location and world-class scientific facilities, to conduct climate change studies in the Arctic. If the institution is diminished, the national fabric of climate research could be at risk. “If you take away the UA piece,” said Victoria Herrmann, president of The Arctic Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., “that’s one less piece to this puzzle that you have to understand global climate change.” 

The roots of the current budget crisis date back to 2014, when oil prices plummeted. Historically, revenue from the oil industry fed the Alaska Permanent Fund and was dished out in annual checks, called the Permanent Fund Dividend, to every Alaska citizen. But when oil income dropped, so did the numbers written on the checks, falling to as low as about $1,000. Dunleavy is determined to raise them to $3,000, the highest amount in the state’s history, making drastic cutbacks to the University of Alaska in an effort to do so.  

Now, researchers are worried about the collection of quality data related to the climate, such as permafrost depth, the evolution of chinook salmon migration, and the thickness of coastal sea ice. Over the past 60 years, the average temperature in Alaska has increased approximately 3 degrees Fahrenheit — more than twice the warming seen across the rest of the United States — causing the state to experience shore erosion, more wildfires and other dangerous impacts of climate change. 

In addition to damaging local ecosystems and communities, these changes are rewriting global weather patterns and contributing to extreme weather events in the Lower 48. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” said Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado. For example, the thawing of Alaska’s permafrost is releasing quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, which may accelerate warming globally. 

Fortunately, the funding for many large research projects comes from outside agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, partially insulating university scientists from state budget cuts. Hajo Eicken, director of the International Arctic Research Center, said that climate change research and collaborative work will continue. However, without the leverage of state support, the team “is going to have to get even better at finding outside funding,” he said. 

But federal grants won’t be enough to sustain the infrastructure the UA system provides for scientists. The budget cuts, for example, could result in the elimination of at least 1,000 university jobs, including key administrative positions that are necessary to keep climate change research running. In addition, furlough notices were sent out earlier this month, forcing 2,500 employees to take 10 days of unpaid leave this year. That could hamper research, said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Thoman, who was in the airport on his way to Nome, Alaska, for a scientific workshop when we spoke, noted that the staff member who made his travel arrangements is paid by the state. Losing that kind of support means less emphasis on research, Thoman said: “That’s time that I’m doing that and not science-based work.”

In the midst of the upheaval, university officials are working to keep funding from outside agencies flowing and research partnerships strong. But in late July, the University of Alaska Board of Regents declared “financial exigency,” which will involve drastic cost-cuts, including laying off some tenured faculty and downsizing or even closing entire campuses. This is a huge threat to the future of climate change research across the nation. “The future is always uncertain,” Thoman said, “but now it really is.” 

Helen Santoro is an editorial intern at High Country News.

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