Alaska is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled places in the world. It is an environment of coastal mountains, vast unspoiled tundras, ice fields, and rivers teaming with fish. As idyllic as this state is, life here in Alaska is not without its challenges.
Here are 5 uncomfortable truths about living in Alaska.
1. Alaska is a dangerous state.
The perils of the 49th state are frequently exaggerated, but they’re not complete works of fiction. According to the bureau of vital statistics, roughly 400 people a year succumb to an untimely demise in Alaska making it the second most deadly state in the Union. Although bear attacks always make headlines, they are few and far between compared to the number of people who fall out of boats, break through frozen lakes, or simply die of exposure in the extreme cold. As moribund as that sounds, the largest number of accidental deaths are far less dramatic. Dozens of Alaskans die each year in their sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning due to faulty heaters or clogged chimneys.
With the highest number of bush planes in the country per capita, aviation fatalities are not uncommon but account for only a small portion of all transportation deaths. Cars, snowmobiles, and ATVs still claim more lives but the best way to meet your maker is to get a job aboard a commercial fishing boat. Considered the most dangerous job in the country, it carries a 20% greater risk of injury or death over any other occupation. For hardened Alaskans nothing is safe, but perspective is everything. More than 150 people are killed every year by falling coconuts, none of them in Alaska.
2. Cabin fever is a real problem.
Every winter thousands of Alaskans get SAD. More than just a little down in the dumps, they become crippled by the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Given its geographic place on the planet, winter in Alaska is not just cold, it is dark. Daylight in the northernmost regions is nonexistent for months at a time creating a physiological shift in mood and disposition. Sufferers of SAD often experience anxiety, malaise, and deep depression. In an attempt to cope, many turn to overeating, extended periods of sleep, booze, or drugs. As the symptoms become more severe this can be a causation of suicide. Alaska ranks second only to Wyoming for the highest rate of suicides in the country.
3. Cruise ships bring the cash and trash.
Tourism is the second largest industry in Alaska. Of the 2 million tourists to visit the state each year, more than half arrive by ship. As one of the most popular cruising destinations in the world, more than $60 million dollars in revenue is collected by coastal towns through docking fees and other taxes. But the cost to the environment is steep.
Despite strict environmental regulations and diligent watchdog groups, cruise ships continue to pollute the pristine waters they ply. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a typical cruise ship produces 21,000 gallons of raw sewage, 2,000 pounds of garbage, 170,000 gallons of wastewater, and 6,400 gallons of oily bilge water from their engines. Airborne pollutants are also monitored and regulated, but infractions are commonplace with financial penalties routinely dismissed as a cost of business. Air quality fines usually exceed $20,000, but that’s a fraction of the daily take from the slot machines in a ship’s casino. Regulations or not, cruise lines caught violating wastewater and air quality standards usually commit repeat offences.
4. It’s not just the bears that get violent.
As beautiful and unspoiled as it is, Alaska is a difficult place to dwell. The climate is harsh and the rigors of daily life can extol a heavy price. For some residents, the stress of Alaskan living boils over into violent encounters. According to statistics provided by the FBI and the United States Census Bureau, Alaska is second to only Tennessee as the nation’s most violent state. Despite higher than average incomes, a low poverty rate, and a sparse population density, violent crimes are surprisingly frequent. The Anchorage Daily News reported that more than 37% of all Alaskan women reported some form of sexual assault.
5. Alaskans secretly love their oil.
Prior to the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, the most infamous oil spill in American history occurred in 1989 with the grounding of the Exxon Valdez tanker. What made the disaster so notable, aside from the 10.8 million gallons of crude dumped in the ocean, was the pristine setting where it took place. Only hours after the ship’s hull was ruptured, Prince William Sound was slathered in oil. Millions of fish, birds, and marine mammals were killed. Oil spills continue to occur on a regular basis including small releases where the Exxon incident occurred. Other significant spills have been recorded along the 800-mile Alaska pipeline which connects the southern tanker depot in Valdez with the oil fields on the northern slope. As tragic as the spills are, Alaskans secretly love their oil.
The largest employer and biggest driver of revenue in the state, the oil industry reigns supreme in Alaska. Even those not directly affiliated with oil production or transport get a cut of the action. The Alaska Permanent Fund was established in 1976 to allow all full-time residents to have some skin in the oil game. Each year the state pays residents a cash dividend, the largest was in 2008, when every Alaskan received more than $3,200 in the mail. Oil spills suck, but free money washes away many people’s concerns of crude-covered birds.