As Winter Sets in, Air Quality Becomes Major Concern for Many Circumpolar Communities

Nov 18, 2016

The health impacts of climate change …

As winter sets in, many communities in the far north like Fairbanks must again deal with the problem of poor air quality created by the pollution from cars and trucks, power plants and home-heating systems.

“Y’know we look at Fairbanks as like the textbook (case) for a kind of a medium-sized community with emissions problems,” says Jim Gamble, executive director of the Aleut International Association. The organization advocates for the indigenous peoples of western Alaska and eastern Siberia.

“There’s a lot of good examples of other communities that do have similar issues. Communities in Canada like Whitehorse, communities in the Russian Federation,” says Gamble, who’s served for years with Arctic Council organizations that study air-quality problems around the region and recommend solutions.

The byproduct of fossil fuel combustion for transportation, utilities and heating collects in low-lying areas just west of the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus on a cold winter night in 2014. Many communities around the circumpolar north wrestle with the challenge of maintaining air quality, with varying success.
Credit KUAC file photo

Many cities around the world deal with air-quality problems. But Gamble says residents of some communities in the far north suffer high rates of respiratory ailments caused by air pollution that, on some days, rivals that of such megacities as Beijing. He says the problem is aggravated in some circumpolar communities by the use of dirtier fuels such as low-grade coal to generate electricity and heat homes; and a lack of adequate pollution-control equipment.

“The problem of course is that a lot of the infrastructure in the Arctic is old – it’s aging. It isn’t the latest technology, so you do tend to see a fair amount of significant emissions from coal-burning.”

Gamble says some utilities that serve communities in the far north are trying to convert to cleaner-burning fuels to generate electricity, to address that one source of pollutants. But he says many lack funding to build new power plants or modernize old ones and to build infrastructure such as pipelines and local distribution systems.

“It’s another situation where, if you had unlimited resources, y’know most communities would be better off not burning coal.”

Gamble says old or substandard residential heating systems also contribute to the problem. In response, many communities, like the Fairbanks North Star Borough, have launched programs to help residents pay for newer, cleaner-burning home-heating systems. Gamble says some Arctic nations have made great progress in cleaning up both indoor and outdoor air quality through such programs.

“You need those incentives to get homeowners to go out and make these changes,” he said. “And the Scandanavian countries, they’re sort of good at that.”

That, and breakthroughs in home-heating technologies that are becoming more widespread and affordable, makes Gamble optimistic that many communities in the far north will continue to make progress in improving their wintertime air quality.

“Definitely – if you’re talking broadly, you could absolutely say they’re making a lot of progress in terms of making their wood-burning and home heating more efficient.”

Editor's note: This story was revised to clarify that it's the Fairbanks-area municipal government, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, that operates the local woodstove-changeout program.