Home Science & Technology SCIENCE! SCIENCE!: The Climes They are a Changin

SCIENCE!: The Climes They are a Changin


“Climate Change”: Two words from the scientific community that have quickly achieved the skepticism, controversy, and contempt of predecessors such as “natural selection” and “heliocentric model.” Regardless of what people believe about “why” or “how much” the climate is changing, it’s hard to refute the overwhelming evidence that something is changing, particularly here in Alaska. These changes have real consequences for our local communities.

The signs of change are everywhere. Invasive plant species that struggled under agricultural conditions just 40 years ago now persist and thrive along the road system of interior Alaska and are spreading into the tundra. As summer temperatures slowly rise, so does the rate of evapotranspiration. This means that plants dry out faster, creating more fuel for wild fires.

Thermokarsts, massive landslides caused by thawing permafrost, are becoming more and more prevalent. As that happens, methane gas trapped underground for centuries is released into the atmosphere. The mud and silt from thermokarsts end up in our streams and rivers. This can potentially choke the aquatic ecosystem with silt and stifle productivity.

An example of thermokarsting near Horn Lake, Alaska.

Lakes that have formed in permafrost basins are shrinking. This occurs as the lakes are taken over by faster growing vegetation, as water drains out of the lake basin as the permafrost melts, or as permafrost “ice wedges” (which form natural dams) break.

Riordan et al permafrost melt


image from Riordan 2005 “Using Remote Sensing to Examine Changes of Closed-Basin Surface Water Area in Interior Alaska from 1950-2002”

The Arctic ice cap is shrinking, spurring talks of new shipping routes, opening the area to increased oil exploration, eliminating habitat for Polar Bears, impacting seal migrations, and threatening the existence of rural villages. The North Pole is melting into a freshwater lake resting on a thin ice basin. Glaciers are receding at alarming rates throughout Alaska, and Greenland has seen some pretty catastrophic ice loss recently as well. This is just some of the evidence that hits close to home.

But to quote a seldom (radio) played Metallica cover “So F@cking What?!?!”  (link is NSFW…)

These landscape changes are already having costly consequences for Alaskans. At the national level, federal spending on fire suppression has more than doubled in the last decade. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) currently spends over $2 billion a year in its firefighting budget. In the 1990’s they only spent about 13 percent of their budget on firefighting. In 2012 it was nearly 40 percent. For Alaska, the USFS Wildland Fire Management program was appropriated 7.9 million dollars for various management, research, and assistance programs during FY 2011. These rising costs and the increasing impacts of fire on development are leading many to question how much taxpayers should pay to protect those who live in areas susceptible to wildfire.

Communities like Kivalina are struggling against the changing environment. Moving the community would cost 90 to 400 million dollars (depending on which estimates you use). Alaska’s 44,000 miles of coastline is home to roughly three quarters of the state’s population and 80 percent of its economic product. While current sea level models are working on long geologic time frames (100 to 1000 years), it’s important to consider how these changes will affect communities as they exist today.

After tweeting an article on permafrost, methane gas, and climate change during climate talks in Qatar, I received a sarcastic comment asking about Vikings having vineyards in Greenland. While it’s certainly true that the climate of Greenland supported agriculture during Erik the Red’s exploration, there are some important differences to point out. For starters, the Vikings ultimately abandoned Greenland (why is still a bit of a controversy). Second of all, the Vikings were well known as nomadic seafarers. They settled many areas beyond Norway and often adapted and integrated into their new landscapes. Most Alaskans are not as resilient in terms of where and how we can live. According to the Census Bureau roughly 300,000 of Alaska’s 730,000 population (or 40 percent) lives in one metropolitan area: Anchorage. While we may be a big state geographically, most of our population is clustered in a relatively small amount of space. We are far more tied to our immediate landscape than the Vikings were in their time. Many of our communities aren’t even accessible by the modern convenience of roads, and places like Sitka and Juneau are wedged between the ocean and some very unforgiving mountain ranges.

We’re certainly no strangers to disaster in this state, but what happens when the buffers that separate us from nature become increasingly eroded? What are the social, economic, and ecological costs associated with climate change and how much are we willing to pay? These are the questions that come to my mind as I read through article after article of new evidence that shows an increasing amount of change in the environment we live in. Increasing costs have political consequences. Either revenues have to be increased, money has to be reappropriated from other sources (be it education, infrastructure, defense, health care or other vital services) or we just have to accept the loss of life, property, and support structure. I’m no climatologist, but I can see the changes that science has documented around our state. When do we as a state finally open our eyes, admit that things are happening, and ask ourselves “how are we going to adapt”?

James Shewmake was the science and nerd culture columnist for the Alaska Commons. He also provided photojournalism and general editorial content for the site. He was the 2nd place finalist for the 2013 Alaska Press Club Leslie Ann Murray Award for his editorial piece on science and religion. James holds a Master’s of Science degree in Natural Resource Management from the University of Alaska - Fairbanks. When he is not working on content for the Commons, he is usually dedicating himself to research on subsistence fisheries, time travel, and/or the establishment of a new Galactic Empire.

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