What University of Alaska's budget cut means for climate change research

The university is considered a global hub for Arctic and climate-change research, majorly because of its proximity to the Arctic
A view of Geophysical Institute Building, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo: Getty Images
A view of Geophysical Institute Building, University of Alaska Fairbanks. Photo: Getty Images

Climate change experts feared crucial research in the Arctic region will be affected by a recently announced funding slash for the University of Alaska.

The varsity, with main branches in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, has been important in climate change research due to its proximity to the region. On August 13, 2019, however, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy reportedly announced that its budget would be nearly halved to $70 million.

“This is definitely a huge reduction in cuts... we are still facing three more years of budget cuts, after (receiving) cuts four out of the past five years,” Kat Milligan-Myhre, a microbiologist at the university’s Anchorage centre, was quoted to be saying to the Nature journal.

The cut could deter potential students and drive professors away. This can affect crucial projects that help scientists understand rapid climate change in the Arctic.

The heavy drop — from $135 million proposed in June — can “slow down progress on areas of active research significantly,” said Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the university's Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, Inside Climate News reported. 

“For things that are already time-pressed because of the rapidity of climate change, having another major speed bump cannot possibly help,” Thoman said.

The new budget would take away a fifth of the university’s state support over three years — $25 million in each of the next two years and $20 million in 2022, Forbes reported.

The university has seen a decrease of more than $50 million in state funding between 2014 and 2019. But, the new budget is likely to have major implications for climate research, as it could slash jobs in crucial administrative positions.

The university's governing board will meet in September to finalise the distribution of cuts and is likely to prioritise student programmes, while reducing administrative costs, the Nature reported.

Arctic’s surface air temperatures in 2019 continued to warm at twice the rate compared to other parts of the globe. Air temperatures in the past five years (2014-18) have exceeded all previous records since 1900, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Rapidly shrinking summer sea ice, glaciers and fast thawing permafrost are some of the trends that are expected to continue in the Arctic, according to NOAA’s 2018 Report Card.  

Dunleavy’s move is viewed to be in line with US President Donald Trump's much-publicised skepticism about global warming and climate change. Trump has denied climate change and has even pulled out of committing towards the Paris Agreement, which aims to restrict emissions “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

“Some prominent conservatives deny the reality of human-caused climate change, and so curtailing UA research is great from their perspective,” Susan Henrichs, a former University of Alaska Fairbanks provost, was quoted by Reuters. 

Earlier in June, the Trump administration launched the new Affordable Clean Energy rule, which enables the existing coal-powered plants to continue operating as they were; they would not be forced to meet the regulations.

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