Dimitri Kusnezov, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for science and technology, stands by Lake Spenard on Tuesday. Kusnezov was on his first Alaska trip, with stops from Juneau to Utqiagvik. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Dimitri Kusnezov, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s undersecretary for science and technology, stands by Lake Spenard on Tuesday. Kusnezov was on his first Alaska trip, with stops from Juneau to Utqiagvik. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

As climate change transforms the Arctic, Homeland Security must adapt, official says

Department undersecretary visits Coast Guard in Juneau, other parts of Alaska this week

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify that the Department of Homeland Security plans to start a new center of excellence.

For the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which has a combination of public safety, emergency response and law-enforcement functions, climate change is creating new challenges for which old responses are no longer adequate, a top department official said on Tuesday.

“I think we live in just a remarkable time, a time of unprecedented change for which we have no historical context for what is happening around us,” said Dimitri Kusnezov, a physicist and former Yale University professor and Department of Energy expert who was confirmed in 2022 as the Homeland Security undersecretary for science and technology.

The forces of climate change that are reducing ice cover and opening up the Arctic to more activity are making Alaska more important, said Kusnezov, who was in the midst of his first tour of the state.

To that end, the department plans to revitalize the Arctic Domain Awareness Center that has been based at the University of Alaska Anchorage, he said in a brief interview in Anchorage before he caught a flight to Fairbanks.

The center was established in 2014 as one of the department’s “centers of excellence” to research threats and challenges to the homeland, but its activity has been reduced. It is now considered to be in “emeritus” status, he said. Homeland Security is now planning to start a new center of excellence focused on Arctic homeland security, with an announcement expected this fall, he said.

The Arctic looms large as far as south as Juneau, which serves as the Alaska headquarters for the one of the best-known branches of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard, Kusnezov found during a stop there.

From what he heard in Juneau, the amount of time it takes to respond to Arctic emergencies or needs when personnel, equipment and other resources are located well south of the Arctic Circle is “a hard problem” for the Coast Guard, Kusnezov said.

The Coast Guard conducts seasonal Arctic operations every year, a program called Operation Arctic Shield that uses Kotzebue as its temporary base. But there is no permanent presence. That lack of permanent presence extends across the department, Kusnezov said.

“DHS does not have a lot of a physical footprint up north. And staging equipment or vessels for search and rescue, I think, is something that is a challenge for the future,” he said.

Aside from meeting with Coast Guard officials in Juneau on Monday, Kusnezov spent part of Tuesday meeting with Julie Kitka, the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, who brought up Western Alaska’s experience with last fall’s Typhoon Merbok disaster, among other topics. He also toured the Ted Stevens Center for Arctic Security Studies on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.

Kusnezov was scheduled to examine permafrost and the impact of its thaw in Fairbanks, a trip that includes a tour of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Permafrost Tunnel Research Facility, with further travel to Utqiagvik to learn about erosion, storm surges and other hazards there. A community meeting is scheduled in Utqiagvik to allow him to learn about public concerns.

For the Arctic and beyond, climate change is playing out in extreme events like huge wildfires, heat waves and floods, events that require the emergency actions for which the Department of Homeland Security, though its Federal Emergency Management Agency and other branches, is responsible.

“Every day we have events that are once-in-a-lifetime. And that’s a lot of lifetimes to live through in one season,” he said.

His job is to employ science and technology to help prepare for such emergencies, he said. While extreme events may not be preventable in the near term, they can be better predicted and tracked through science and technology, he said.

To learn about threats facing Alaska, Kusnezov’s visit was timed serendipitously.

On Saturday, just before his arrival, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck an area near the Alaska Peninsula community of Sand Point, triggering a tsunami warning and some brief evacuations in coastal towns. At the same time, Shishaldin Volcano in the Aleutian Islands has been erupting explosively since Saturday, including on Tuesday, when it sent an ash cloud up to 30,000 feet into the air, potentially reaching airspace used by commercial jetliners. The National Weather Service has issued advisories about Shishaldin to both pilots and mariners.

Kusnezov said he has been monitoring both situations and that they show the force of natural events.

“It’s a reminder that we’re not in control of our destiny in that sense. These things are going to happen and they’re going to surprise us,” he said.

• Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns. This story originally appeared at alaskabeacon.com. Alaska Beacon, an affiliate of States Newsroom, is an independent, nonpartisan news organization focused on connecting Alaskans to their state government.

More in News

(Juneau Empire File)
Aurora forecast for the week of Nov. 27

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

The Hubbard state ferry (left), the newest vessel in the Alaska Marine Highway System fleet, is back in service in northern Southeast Alaska after a maintenance period as the LeConte, which also serves the region, undergoes a scheduled annual overhaul until March 3. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Marine Highway System)
AMHS leaders hopeful staffing, sailings are trending up

More employees at key positions hired, restoration of cross-Gulf sailings next summer envisioned.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2023

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A ConocoPhillips oil rig operating during winter on Alaska’s North Slope is featured on the cover of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s report recommending approval of the Willow oil project. (U.S. Bureau of Land Management)
Judge rejects calls to halt winter construction work on Willow oil project in Alaska during appeal

A federal judge in Alaska on Friday rejected requests from environmental groups… Continue reading

Strips of chum salmon hang on a drying rack on Aug. 22, 2007. A new study by federal and state biologists identies marine heat waves in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska as the likely culprit in the recent crashes of Western Alaska chum salmon runs. (Photo by S.Zuray / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Study points to concurrent marine heat waves as culprit in Western Alaska chum declines

Successive marine heat waves appear to have doomed much of the chum… Continue reading

Marzena Whitmore (elf) and Dale Hudson (Santa), pose for a photo with Benny Orvin (partially obscured), 6, and his siblings Lilly, 4, and Remi, 2, taken by their mother Alex as their father Randy watches during Gallery Walk in downtown Juneau on Friday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Coming together as one giant community family at Gallery Walk

Thousands share an evening of entertainment in the outdoor chill, visiting shops and hot chocolate.

Girls teams face off on the twin courts of the main gym at Juneau-Douglas Yadaa.at Kalé High School during the Juneau Invitational Volleyball Extravaganza on Oct. 15, 2022. The Juneau Board of Education on Friday unanimously voted to seek advice from outside council on a new state policy banning transgender girls from high school sports teams. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
School board unanimously votes to seek outside legal advice on new statewide transgender sports ban

Juneau reportedly first district to take step that may lead to lawsuit challenging policy.

A Capital City Fire/Rescue truck parks outside the main entrance of the Riverview Senior Living complex Monday after Nathan Bishop, 58, is found alive in the attic 40 hours after being reported missing from the facility where he is a resident. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
State reviewing Riverview Senior Living after missing resident found in attic 40 hours later

Officials unaware of similar cases in Alaska; facility says steps to prevent such incidents underway

Search and rescue officials examine the area about 11 miles south of the center of Wrangell where a landslide occurred on Nov. 20. Five people are confirmed dead from the landslide and one still missing. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Public Safety)
Body of fifth Wrangell landslide victim found; one person still missing

Otto Florschutz, 65, found Thursday evening; Derek Heller, 12, still missing among family of five.

Most Read