This Monday through Wednesday, President Obama will be in Alaska, visiting melting glaciers and remote towns and meeting with other Arctic leaders. On Sunday, the president made a major statement by officially renaming Mt. McKinley — the U.S.’s highest peak — Denali, its traditional native name.
The trip’s purpose is to highlight climate change — and for Alaska in particular, the change has been dramatic.
Alaska has already warmed by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 50 years. Overall, that has led to sweeping changes, many of which we have reported on in the last year here at Energy & Environment. They include:
Dramatic ice melting. Alaska is a state famous for its snowy peaks and mountain glaciers — a major tourist draw. Yet its ice volume has declined greatly in recent years.
A study earlier this year found that Alaska’s glaciers were losing 75 billion metric tons of ice per year — meaning that although Alaska’s mountain glaciers only comprise 11 percent of the world’s total, they’re contributing 25 percent of the losses (and rising sea level) from this source.
The Kenai peninsula’s Exit Glacier pictured above — which Obama will visit — is just one case in point. It retreated 43 feet per year between 1815 and 1999, according to data from the National Park Service. The retreat has only continued since then, and last year the glacier retreated 187 feet.
Denali itself has lost a dramatic amount of its ice. 16 percent of Denali National Park and Preserve is covered by glaciers, according to the National Park Service, but “the evidence is clear that Denali’s glaciers are thinning and retreating,” it says. Between 1950 and 2010, Denali’s glaciers lost 8 percent of their area.
It isn’t just glaciers — it’s all frozen stuff. Data show that Alaska had a very early snow cover loss this year, heating up the ground earlier and helping set the stage for one of its worst wildfire seasons ever:
Worsening wildfires. It seems unlikely that the 2015 wildfire season will be Alaska’s worst ever — that honor goes to 2004, when more than 6.5 million acres burned. But 2015 is in second place with well over 5 million.
“What we’ve been seeing in the last two decades is an increase in the extent of area burned from year to year and a fairly substantial increase in the frequency of these very large fire years,” Scott Rupp, a professor of forestry at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told me back in July.
Worsening fires don’t just present dangers to humans or to wildlife — they can change entire forests. In Alaskan fires, what tends to burn is black spruce forests, with a thick organic layer on the forest floor that also often goes up in smoke. What grows can be quite different — aspen or birch – and these trees bring with them a very different ecosystem.
And that’s just one small way that changes to the system reverberate. At the same time, worsening fires feed into another trend.
Destabilized permafrost. Eighty percent of Alaska is underlain by at least some amount of permafrost — ground that is frozen all year round. But as the state warms up quickly, permafrost is thawing. Wildfires, which can burn off trees, hasten this process. But it is also happening even without them, simply due to higher temperatures.
The loss of permafrost can undermine Alaskan roads and infrastructure and also creates the curious phenomenon known as “drunken trees.” But the bigger issue may be climatic.
When permafrost thaws, that allows old plants, long preserved in the frozen ground, to begin the process of decomposition. And much like what happens when you burn trees above ground, that releases carbon — mostly in the form of carbon dioxide. Scientists have estimated that by the year 2100, permafrost around the world — not just in Alaska, but also in Canada, Siberia and other Arctic nations — could release some 150 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere if warming continues apace (a gigaton is a billion metric tons).
That converts into over 500 gigatons of carbon dioxide, when the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said the planet only has about 1,000 more gigatons to emit in order to have a greater than 66 percent chance of keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius. Granted, the permafrost scenario above would occur under the “current warming trajectory” and thus could be lessened if we limit emissions.
But it just goes to show that permafrost emissions could be large enough to seriously complicate efforts to reduce carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. What that means is that even if we succeed through policy, planetary emissions that we do not control may still push us into a climate danger zone.
Coastal erosion. In his Aug. 29 radio address that previewed his Alaska trip, Obama mentioned that four Alaskan villages are “in ‘imminent danger’ and have to be relocated. Already, rising sea levels are beginning to swallow one island community.”
The president is almost certainly referring to the tiny village of Kivalina on the shores of the Chukchi Sea, which is being increasingly battered by extreme waves that, as sea ice dwindles, are more easily generated offshore. Sometimes waves can wash across the entire island, which can be terrifying, especially for a place so remote where help is very far away. Kivalina will have to be relocated, at a cost that has been estimated at well over $100 million.
But Kivalina isn’t unique. The U.S. Geological Survey recently found that along Alaska’s north coast, an average of 1.4 meters per year of land is vanishing — and in some places rates are far higher than that. The study also observed that
Projected and observed increases in periods of sea-ice free conditions, as sea-ice melts earlier and forms later in the year, particularly in the autumn, when large storms are more common in the Arctic, suggest that Arctic coasts will be more vulnerable to storm surge and wave energy, potentially resulting in accelerated shoreline erosion and terrestrial habitat loss in the future.
That’s not the only consequence of rapidly retreating sea ice, though.
Wildlife havoc. Sharp changes to environments greatly affect the animals living there. For instance, we recently reported that yet again this year, thousands of Pacific walruses have “hauled out” along the Alaskan coast north of Kivalina at Point Lay, because sea ice in the Chukchi Sea has dwindled so early in the year.
Walruses feed at sea but have to rest and prefer to do so atop ice floes in close vicinity to shallow shoals where they can dive and feed at the sea floor. But when the ice is gone, they tend to flock to shore in large numbers, which can be very dangerous. When they’re in a cluster and get spooked — by, say, a human noise or an animal walking by — a stampede can ensue and younger walruses can be killed.
Walruses are just one animal species threatened — their current struggle is actually quite similar to that of one predator that they greatly fear, the polar bear. Polar bears, too, depend on Arctic sea ice and become more and more strained as it shrinks in extent.
In sum, when you warm a state by 3 degrees Fahrenheit in just 50 years, you change things sweepingly and systematically. And if climate projections are right, Alaska’s warming has only begun.
We can try to protect stranded wildlife, as the Fish and Wildlife Service is doing right now — and we can relocate whole villages if we’re willing to spend the money on it. But other changes are far too large to do anything about, other than stand by and watch.
Alaska, it is fair to say, will be a very different place in the future. There will be more access to the Arctic, leading to more tourism and more commercial opportunities — but something profound will have been lost, too.
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