Sunday, July 1, 2012

‘Melting Edge’ shows Alaska in crosshairs of climate change

David A. James writes from Alaska in the Fairbanks Daily News Miner

[June 30, 2012 A.D.]

IN A REVIEW OF "The Melting Edge: Alaska at the Frontier of Climate Change" by Michael Collier and published by Alaska Geographic magazine

[116 pages]  US$20

"Alaska is changing, and it’s changing fast. Mountain glaciers are retreating. Ground frozen solid for thousands of years is melting into mush. Lakes that once perched atop permafrost are draining as though their plugs had been pulled. In a state with more than 33,000 miles of shoreline, sea level is rising. Coastal communities are awash in waves. Plants and animals struggle to adapt, not always successfully. This alteration of the Alaska landscape is impossible to ignore.”

This paragraph, found early in “The Melting Edge: Alaska at the Frontier of Climate Change,” serves as a good summary of what author Michael Collier sets out to explore in this latest publication from Alaska Geographic. This brief, magazine-style book documents the ways, often subtle but sometimes abrupt, that the ecosystems of our state are responding to the slow but steady rise of temperatures as our climate seeks to adapt to forces both natural and manmade that are pressuring it.

In a series of short essays, Collier travels around the state, meeting with various researchers and showing the differing ways that climate changes are impacting human, animal, and plant life.

The most dramatic impacts on people are being found in the more northerly coastal communities, where the combination of rising sea levels and melting permafrost are causing the land to erode right out from under townsites. Shishmaref and Newtok are two such settlements that will ultimately have to be moved because their present locations are washing away. The costs of these relocations are intimidating and annual incomes are low. Who will pay for moving the towns is an open question. The larger community of Barrow, meanwhile, is now sandbagging its beach in a short-term effort at staving off ground loss.

Human and animal fates are intertwined along the Yukon River, where a slight rise in water temperature in recent decades has likely been the trigger for the increasing occurrence of the Icthyophonus hoferi parasite that is attacking salmon, leading to lower runs as the diseased fish struggle to reach their upstream spawning grounds.

Arctic marine animals are the most immediately threatened by current changes. The rapidly melting sea ice is robbing them of crucial habitat. Walruses and polar bears both depend on the presence of the ice to rest while hunting. Unable to find haul-out spots, they are forced to swim tremendous distances, exhausting themselves and finding it increasingly difficult to successfully raise their young.

On shore, Collier notes that musk oxen are also faced with growing pressures as the methods they have developed to survive in extreme cold are inapplicable to less severe temperatures. Caribou, on the other hand, may be the big winners, since their migratory behavior will likely play in their favor.

Plant life is also being hit hard. The spruce bark beetle has always been present on the Kenai Peninsula, but until the 1980s it was kept in check by the cold. As temperatures rose its lifecycle was lengthened (it even developed the capacity for adults to overwinter) and the region’s forests were demolished. Further north, the spruce budworm is beginning to threaten Interior forests with similar devastation.

Across the northern reaches of the state, tundra is slowly being displaced by advancing forests, and wildfires are becoming increasingly frequent. Thunderstorms, once a rarity in the Arctic, are now routine in summer, and lightning strikes cause of most of the fire activity.

Underneath the plants, the permafrost found in much of the state is thawing out, causing lakes to drain and disappear in some places, bogs to form in others, and surface grounds to buckle. This is creating headaches for road construction and other development projects since the methods of building in these areas are dependent on the ground remaining frozen.

The melting of sea ice has been dramatic and well publicized. Collier notes that 2008 saw the greatest retreat on record, although the book went into publication too soon to report that 2011, depending on which study is cited, was either worse or equal in overall loss.

Collier does a good job of explaining how open water absorbs solar heat that the ice would have reflected, warming the water and melting the ice from beneath, creating a feedback loop that accelerates the process. He also describes the crucial difference between multi-year and seasonal ice, showing why wintertime ice recovery is only temporary and shouldn’t be confused with an indication that the problem is resolving itself.

Glaciers are also retreating, although Collier is careful to point out that this is due as much to the long twilight of the last Ice Age as it is to current climate shifts. That said, the rate of melting has picked up considerably in recent years, indicating that something more is going on.

Collier’s text is accompanied by numerous photographs that show the changes he documents, although there aren’t any older pictures included that would illustrate the landscape alterations more vividly. One needn’t look far before finding photographs of areas in Alaska that looked significantly different a century ago than they do today, and it would have been nice to have some of these included.

He’s also written what is essentially an introductory book, so the science of what is occurring, as well as the magnitude of it, are only minimally explained. Those who wish to learn more are advised to consult Homer author Nancy Lord’s “Early Warming” for what is still the best exploration of northern ''warming'' written for a general audience. [NOTE: They might also like to check out Danny Bloom's blogs about POLAR CITIES FOR SURVIVORS OF GLOBAL WARMING IN ALASKA at].

That said, this is a valuable book. As Collier writes early on, “Alaska lies squarely in the crosshairs of climate change.” We need to quit ignoring this reality and decide how we will deal with it.

David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

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