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In Alaska, climate change is showing increasing signs of disrupting everyday life

Climate change erosion caused by melting permafrost tundra and the disappearance of sea ice which formed a protective barrier, threatens houses from the Yupik Eskimo village of Quinhagak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska last month. (Mark Ralston/AFP)

It was another cold season full of records in Alaska, mostly of the abnormally warm kind. The state is in the midst of a five-plus-year onslaught of extreme warmth, only infrequently broken by the customary cold. This year’s warm season has begun on the same foot.

Signals of the rapid changes in the state are as simple as a whiff of rain in winter in places it usually only snows, or as complex as how stuck weather patterns depleting ice over multiple seasons.

In recent weeks, rivers have lost their ice much earlier than normal, while the extent of ice covering the Bering Sea is alarmingly low.

From compromised infrastructure and shifts in plant life, changes resulting from recent climate disruption are tangible.

Two men died in recent weeks when ice gave way under their four-wheelers on the Kuskokwim River in southwest parts of the state. According to Alaska Public Radio, “ice doesn’t get this weak in Bethel until May, but that has changed. This year, it started happening in March.”

That episode was just the beginning of an early melt off on rivers across the state.

The Tanana River at Nenana — to the southwest of Fairbanks, in central Alaska — went ice-free on April 14, which was the earliest in its 103-year record by six days.

The early disappearance of river ice in indicative of a record to near-record warm winter across the state.

The reasons for the winter warmth were multifaceted. At its root were persistent areas of high pressure over the Yukon and stretching into the Gulf of Alaska. Coupled with low pressure near the Bering Sea and into the Arctic Ocean to its north, mild air was drawn northward. This flow also kept storms coming which in turn helped sea ice fall to near record minimums.

According to Rick Thoman of the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, the most alarming of all the current signs of climate change in Alaska is open water where there should be sea ice.

“Decreased ice extent and thinner, more mobile ice impacts the subsistence economies of western and northern Alaska communities by eliminating or reducing activities that use ice as a platform to work from,” Thoman wrote in an email.

He also points to the fact that sea ice changes make wintertime coastal storms more damaging because ice acts as a buffer against waves. Communities such as Newtok, Chefornak, and about three dozen other small communities on Alaska’s west coast have been planning to relocate in part or in whole.

As another example of sea ice failure impacting local communities, crabbing season in places like Nome on the Bering Sea coast in Alaska’s northwest has already been shortened by about a month on each side. With recent years featuring unprecedented lack of sea ice, crabbing was brought to a total halt in some spots.

While impacts to some of the most prolific fisheries in the world have yet to show themselves strongly, scientists worry that we may now or soon be crossing thresholds that set off a catastrophic chain reaction.

Die-offs of marine and bird life in the region have become increasingly common, as have massive algae blooms in warmer than normal waters.

On land, melting permafrost is releasing gasses like carbon dioxide and methane, part of a feedback loop that also includes more dark soils gathering and storing heat rather than a reflective ice and snow pack that bounces warmth back into the atmosphere.

Melting permafrost is also damaging infrastructure like roads and buildings by causing shifts and changes in soil not expected when construction occurred.

As Discover Magazine wrote earlier this year, “In Alaska alone, the destruction of buildings and infrastructure due to permafrost thaw over the next century could cost more than $2 billion.”

There are some things people think of as positives of a warmer world, like more plant-life in regions that were previously barren. However, in places like Alaska it’s increasingly clear there are other side effects. Changing weather and greater swings in extremes are stressing some plants and causing a number of pests to multiply rapidly as well.

Insects like hungry moths have flourished, destroying forests and crushing cycles of berry growth in parts of Alaska in a way with no known precedent.

With the seeming increase in long-lasting high pressure zones across the region, massive wildfire threat continues to grow over time across Alaska and the Arctic more broadly.

Thoman sees this as one of the bigger red flags in the state’s future. “Extreme wildfire seasons are an omnipresent threat,” he wrote. Although last year’s fire season was relatively tame, 2019 seems to be getting off to a quick start, and trends continue to favor more frequent and larger fires.

With evidence continuing to mount in our northernmost state, we should consider it something of a warning of what’s to come elsewhere.