Alaska Climate Assessment ReportClimate change will change Alaska, as we know it. The United States Global Change Research Program has released its draft Climate Assessment Report for 2013, the third in a series beginning in the year 2000. A large advisory committee contributed to the development of the congressionally mandated climate report authored by more than 240 recognized researchers. The complete can viewed online and public comments are being solicited.

A significant portion of the climate report is focused on the Arctic. Researchers are projecting a minimum increase in Alaska’s annual temperatures of two to four degrees Fahrenheit by the middle of this century. If global emissions continue to be unabated, these numbers will be much higher. Warming is increasing more rapidly in northern latitudes, compared to the more temperate lower states. Climate change will affect Alaska in many key ways.

Alaska Climate Assessment Report Findings:

Rapidly Receding Summer Sea Ice – Declining sea ice extents in the Arctic will change the environment in many ways. Reduced sea ice equates to better access for oil industry development, opening of the Northwest Passage to marine cargo transportation, increasing cruise ship tourism and new commercial fishing opportunities. Loss of seasonal sea ice will increase shore erosion and further threaten rural coastal communities. Since Polar bears spend most of their time on sea ice, they are seen as being particularly threatened by climate warming in the north.

One resident of the western Alaska community of Newtok says, “Not that long ago the water was far from our village and could not be easily seen from our homes. Today the weather is changing and is slowly taking away our village. Our boardwalks are warped, some of our buildings tilt, the land is sinking and falling away, and the water is close to our homes. The infrastructure that supports our village is compromised and affecting the health and well being of our community members, especially our children”

Shrinking Glaciers in Alaska and British Columbia – Alaska has the unsought distinction of having the fastest loss of glacier ice on Earth. The freshwater contribution of melting glaciers to the ocean ranges from 40 to 70 billion tons every year. To picture the scale of this number, a ton of water equates to about 240 gallons, a billion tons would be 240,000,000,000 gallons of water. Glacier water is seen as an important source of organic carbon, iron and phosphorus that contributes to the productivity of Alaskan fisheries. Once glaciers have finished their retreats, these nutrients will not be as readily available to fish. Loss of glacier runoff in the long term will effect the water available hydropower generation in the north.

Rising Permafrost Temperatures in Alaska – Alaska is the only state that will worry about permafrost thawing. As the normally frozen ground melts, it often subsides; the ground surface shrinks lower into the earth. The most obvious effect of thawing permafrost is the damage it causes to installed infrastructure. Homes, highways, pipelines and water systems face severe damage when the ground beneath them disappears. Permafrost and the organic matter contained in the soil is a huge carbon sink, melting the ground releases massive amounts of greenhouse gasses methane and carbon dioxide. One other effect of permafrost thawing is the loss of surface water lakes across the state. As the lakes dry, the risk of wildfire increases and wildlife habitat is permanently changed.

Ocean Temperatures Increasing – Increased ocean water temperatures will affect the marine ecosystem in several ways. As water warms, it grows more acidic, causing harm to coral, clam and crab species that use calcium in the building of their skeletons. Salmon are likely to colonize warmer waters northward, but worries exist with aquatic invasive species being introduced through more frequent vessel ballast water exchanges. These invasive species have the potential to thrive in the warmer waters.

Alaska Native Communities are Vulnerable to the Effects of Climate Change – Alaska Natives and rural residents depend greatly on hunting, fishing and gathering for their livelihoods. The cash economy is severely depressed and poverty is widespread. Thinning ice makes hunting and fishing more dangerous. Changes in ice thickness, tidal levels and species distribution directly affects the success of hunting and fishing. A lack of winter sea ice promotes coastal erosion and has forced many communities into planning moves to higher ground. Native elders point out that their people have been able to live successfully in the Arctic because of their ability to adapt and this flexibility will see them forward to success in the future.

The National Climate Report will be reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences and by the public. Once it is formalized, the report will be presented to the Federal government for consideration and further action. Comments can be made online at the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee website.

Copyright © 2013 by Alan Sorum

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