Saturday, March 25, 2017

Global Warming Comes to Alaska

The climate is changing.  Most people can already recognize the fact by noticing the variation in season duration, temperature and precipitation levels, and intensity of weather patterns.  As the world warms, there is more energy and more moisture available to contribute to weather phenomena.  How that energy and moisture alters local climates is not easily predicted, but things are changing, and will continue to change.  For most, global warming has been a nuisance thus far, or a small excursion from norms.  However, there is one place where elevated temperatures present an already serious problem: Alaska. 

Why would the coldest state in the nation be most sensitive to temperature change?  The explanation is mainly due to what is referred to as Arctic Amplification.  From Wikipedia:

“The poles of the Earth are more sensitive to any change in the planet's climate than the rest of the planet. In the face of ongoing global warming, the poles are warming faster than lower latitudes. The primary cause of this phenomenon is ice-albedo feedback, whereby melting ice uncovers darker land or ocean beneath, which then absorbs more sunlight, causing more heating. The loss of the Arctic sea ice may represent a tipping point in global warming, when 'runaway' climate change starts, but on this point the science is not yet settled.”

Note the suggestion that global warming may have a “tipping point” when variation is no longer slow and gradual but can change dramatically in a few years or decades.  Such instances exist in the geological record.

One should pay attention to articles chronicling the inexorable loss of Arctic sea ice.  One should also realize that the sea ice is important to natives of Alaska who have long resided on the coast line.  The ice provides protection from severe storms that sweep in over the ocean.  As the ice retreats shorelines become subject to erosion by these storms and entire villages have been placed at risk of being swept away.  Rising temperatures have also caused melting of the permafrost layer in some areas.  Buildings and roads constructed on the assumption of having a firm basis are finding the earth is moving beneath them.  An article provided by the EPA contains a summary of the impacts on Alaska from continued warming and provides this background.

“Over the past 60 years, the average temperature across Alaska has increased by approximately 3°F. This increase is more than twice the warming seen in the rest of the United States. Warming in the winter has increased by an average of 6°F and has led to changes in ecosystems, such as earlier breakup of river ice in the spring. As the climate continues to warm, average annual temperatures in Alaska are projected to increase an additional 2 to 4°F by the middle of this century. Precipitation in Alaska is projected to increase during all seasons by the end of this century. Despite increased precipitation, the state is likely to become drier due to greater evaporation caused by warming temperatures and longer growing seasons.”

A more precise indication on how the mean temperature over the January to July period has varied over the years is provided here.



Note how dramatically high the temperature appeared in 2016.  Is this an exceptional aberration, or is it an indication that change has accelerated?  Stay tuned.

The Alaskan government is not in a position to be denying manmade climate change.  It is busy trying to figure out how it will be able to respond to all the damage that is being done.  An article from the Alaska Dispatch News by Yereth Rosen, Study: Climate change will be costly to Alaska's public infrastructure, provides an indication of the problems arising.

“Flood damage to roads is expected to be the climate-related factor racking up the most economic damage, with permafrost thaw and effects on buildings expected to be the second-costliest category, the study says.”

“Even though the most dramatic climate warming has been measured in Alaska's far-north Arctic, the state's Interior region and parts of the state's Southcentral region are likely to incur the biggest costs from climate-related damages. Within developed Southcentral Alaska, the Prince William Sound area is expected to bear the highest climate-related infrastructure costs.”

"’Both these regions are expected to have more rain in the future, which could result in more flooding, thus increasing the impacts on the many roads found in boroughs in that area. For Fairbanks North Star (Borough), permafrost thaw damage to buildings also adds considerably to the costs,’ lead author April Melvin said in an email.”

It is ironic that the state that benefited most from the consumption of fossil fuels is now the one suffering the most from that consumption.  Another article from the same paper, Walker renews call for budget reforms: 'Denial doesn't make the problem go away', indicates the fiscal problems faced by Alaska.

“[Governor] Walker is also proposing legislation this year to freeze the salaries of some state employees. But those proposals alone won't come close to eliminating Alaska's $3 billion deficit.”

“The state's budget, which has long been balanced with oil taxes and royalties, has been hammered by the two-year slump in prices and now uses savings to pay 70 cents of each dollar spent.”

“A recent, modest recovery in oil prices offers a dose of good news, Walker said. But current prices of roughly $50 a barrel would still need to double to solve the state's budget problem, he added, or the flow of oil in the trans-Alaska oil pipeline would have to triple.”

A recent article from Bloomberg Businessweek by Christopher Flavelle, Alaska’s Big Problem With Warmer Winters, provides further insight.  He focuses on the situation in Homer, a city of 5,000 situated on the Cook Inlet in Southern Alaska.

“From 1932 to 2017, the daily minimum temperature in Homer, a city on the eastern shore of the inlet, averaged 19F in February. Narrow that to the past 10 years and the average rises to 21F; for the past five years, 25F. Last February, Homer’s daily low averaged 30F—just two degrees colder than in Washington, D.C., 1,200 miles closer to the Equator.”

“As warmer winters arrive in Alaska, this city of 5,000 offers a glimpse of the challenges to come. Precipitation that used to fall as snow lands as rain, eroding the coastal bluffs and threatening the only road out of town. Less snow means less drinking water in Homer’s reservoir; it also means shallower, warmer streams, threatening the salmon that support Cook Inlet’s billion-dollar fishing industry.”

“Heavier storm surges are eating away at Homer’s sea wall, which no insurance company will cover and which the city says it couldn’t pay to replace. Warmer water has also increased toxic phytoplankton blooms that leach into oysters and clams. When eaten by humans, the toxins can cause amnesia, extreme diarrhea, paralysis, and death.”

Homer is luckier than some of the villages threatened by coast erosion that are requesting funds to cover the cost of moving further inland, but it must compete with them and others with severe problems for scarce funds.  This source provides an example of the damage being done and why moving is necessary.



Alaska was once enthused about preparing to deal with global warming.  Curiously, it was Sarah Palin who was then leading the way.

“Alaska was once at the vanguard of states trying to deal with global warming. In 2007, then-Governor Sarah Palin established a climate change subcabinet to study the effects of warmer weather and find policies to cope with them. Over three years, the legislature provided about $26 million in funding. But Palin’s successor, Republican Sean Parnell, disbanded the group in 2011. That year, Alaska withdrew from a federal program that provides funds for coastal management because of concern the program might restrict offshore oil extraction. Since then, lower oil prices, combined with dwindling production, have left the state with a budget crisis that’s among the worst in the U.S. Just when climate change is having real impact, Alaska has less and less capacity to deal with it.”

If one is at risk from global warming it is, perhaps, best to seriously consider the beliefs of the governor you elect (Alaska’s Governor Walker was elected as a Republican and has since switched to being an independent).

“Alaska remains the only state eligible for federal funding through the coastal protection program that doesn’t receive the money, because it hasn’t submitted a plan that addresses the issue.”

“Alaska is an extreme example of a national failure to prepare for climate change. Across the U.S., state funding for environmental projects, such as beach erosion control or upgraded sewage systems, peaked in 2007, even as capital expenditures have since risen 25 percent. States along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts have resisted adopting the latest model building codes designed to protect residents against storms and other extreme weather. And when the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggested last year that states take more responsibility preparing for natural disasters, the National Governors Association balked.”

Flavelle points out that the states’ abdication of responsibility places the burden of responding to climate change on the federal government, now led by a man with uncertain motives and a seeming lack of interest in the issue.

“In the absence of state action, the federal government has taken over responsibility for dealing with climate change. That spending may be in doubt: President Donald Trump’s first budget request cuts many of those programs.”

Flavelle then finishes with this statement.

“If Alaska is a warning about America’s climate future, as Barack Obama argued in a 2015 visit, it portends not only the onset of erratic weather but also the struggle of governments to keep up. ‘We may seem small and remote to you,’ says Beth Kerttula, a former Alaska state representative and director of the National Ocean Council under Obama. ‘But if you don’t care about us, you better at least learn from us. Because you’re next’.”


The interested reader might find these articles informative:




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