2022 Magazine - Silver

Temperatures in Fairbanks, Alaska have risen so much that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officially changed the city’s subarctic definition in 2021 to “warm summer continental.” As the climate warms, the ancient permafrost that covered an estimated 85 percent of Alaska is thawing, leaving places where the ground is now collapsing. As Lois Parshley writes in her award-winning piece, spruce trees “lean drunkenly” in places where “only a thin layer of soil covers yawning craters where the ice has vanished.” The disappearance of the ice has fundamentally changed how and where people can live. As Aaron Cooke, an architect and researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, told Parshley, “To someone in the north, the natural state of the ground, the default status of Earth, is frozen. And thousands of years of culture are built on that knowledge.” The impacts of permafrost thaw—subsidence, flooding, sinkholes and landslides—can be disastrous but the Federal Emergency Management Agency isn’t responsible for permafrost damage, and it can be difficult to get covered by homeowner’s insurance, Parshley writes. A statewide threat assessment found that 89 of Alaska’s 336 communities are threatened by permafrost degradation. Judge Christina Horsten, New York City correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, said Parshley’s story “manages to paint a vivid picture of what climate change already means for some parts of Alaska and what it could mean in the future.” She called it “great writing on an important topic.” Richard van Noorden, features editor of Nature, said: “Parshley’s well-written story follows scientists charting how thawing permafrost is affecting societies in Alaska—and makes clear the inadequacy of funding for their work, and for climate mitigation efforts.” Freelancer Lois Parshley said she is hopeful her story “helps bring more attention to how quickly the climate is changing in the Arctic, and the consequences for the people who live there. My goal is always to make sure that my reporting rings true to both a local and a general audience, and I was particularly grateful that that my excellent editors at Grist worked with the Anchorage Daily News to republish this piece, helping make the reporting accessible to the people most impacted.”