Thursday, July 17, 2014


Alaska's Ecological Challenges

Most of us know about Alaska's precarious position in the current cycle of global warming. While the average global warming currently stands just under 1 degree C, it is more than 2 degrees C at the poles. Alaska is warming much faster than the continental US, and its ecology is rapidly changing. One of the most poignant moments at Lafayette Park in DC a year ago at the March for Our Grandchildren was the story by a pre-teen Inuit boy in the far north who had witnessed the death of his village as the ground under it thawed and it started to slide into the Arctic Ocean (scroll down to Aug 2 post). We never traveled that far north – the closest we came to the Arctic Circle was one hundred miles south – but we did witness some of the effects of climate change in Alaska firsthand.

Driving north on the Haines and Alaskan highways, we saw a lot of dead and dying spruce. As you head into Fairbanks, a wide plain that is not heavily forested, the majority of tress are spindly black spruce, growing out of the muskeg, with permafrost underneath. The permafrost melts more each year, so other species are coming in, especially birch. We observed die-off as we headed northwest from Fairbanks to Denali Park by train as well. But we also saw a lot of new growth replacing the dead trees. I read that the situation is much worse to the north in the Arctic Circle, where the boreal forest is hard-hit by drought and the heat has lengthened the annual activity span of all conifer beetles, in this case, the spruce beetle.

As we made our way to Denali, we learned of a fire in the Kenai Peninsula. I met a Native Alaskan in Tok who was headed to forest fighter retraining, readying himself to join the forces fighting the big fire in the southwest. It eventually grew to just under 200,000 acres before finally burning out. One day towards the end of our time at Denali, the morning mist was replaced by smoke, which persisted for the rest of the day, rendering visibility minimal. We were over 400 miles to the northeast of the fire, but the winds were blowing our way. The problem with the fire, other than negligence, is that Alaska, like the West Coast, is in drought. Everywhere we went, folks were very careful about fires, and there were no-burn zones posted frequently.

Back in Wasilla, after an unusually warm winter- the spring thaw was much deeper than normal - the pilings holding up the large Alaska Friends retreat cabin had sunk several inches on the aquatic side. A team worked to set up platforms to jack the building up for a footer retrofit (the second time this has been necessary). I helped build a platform to extend the dock, for the water level came up four inches this spring.

But by far the most striking instance of climate change was what we witnessed at Juneau's Mendenhall Glacier, one of the premier glaciers on a coast full of them. We kayaked to the glacier one morning to explore an ice cave. Our kayaking guide, who visits the glacier often, marked for us a retreat of 30-40 feet in three months. Returning during shore leave from our cruise a month later, I could see that a large chunk of leaning glacier we had kayaked near had calved, and the now-smaller icebergs were spread all over the lake. Our hosts Bill and Susan pointed out an entire ridge that had been uncovered by melt since they first viewed Mendenhall in the mid 1980's. The pace of melt for this iconic glacier is stunning.

Here is the summary of recent ecological changes in the Alaskan national parks by the park science advisor, Robert Winfree. Spruce is expanding into formerly treeless areas; woody vegetation is invading wetlands; open floodplains and terraces are being widely colonized by vegetation (we saw this along several of Alaska's mighty rivers); ponds are shrinking; glaciers and related features are receding.

In his report in this summer's Denali newsletter, Winfree notes that climate change in Alaska is a perennial feature. “What's different now is that the changes are happening faster – fast enough for people to sense and recognize. The myriad ways in which climate change is affecting our lives, environment, resources, and the places we care about, will be incompletely understood for long into the future – but waiting for complete certainty before responding in unlikely to be a viable solution.” If you read through the lines of this typically careful scientific language, the direness of the situation, what the US military calls a rapid climate change scenario, is apparent (though the House of Representatives passed an amendment forbidding mention of this Bush-era study). It's happening fast all over the planet, nowhere faster than at the poles. As we now fatefully know, at its antipode the West Antarctic ice shelf is in “irreversible melt.”

We were fortunate to see Alaska's grand and terrible beauty. It will be a different landscape in the near future.

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