Warmer world will be wetter

Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Scientists now generally agree that the burning of fossil fuels has raised temperatures worldwide in the past 140 years, a state climatological expert told legislators Monday.

But the prospect of increasingly warmer, wetter weather is not all bad for Alaska's economy, said Gunter Weller, director of the Center for Global Change & Arctic System Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Since 1860, the worldwide average temperature has increased from 56 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 57, Weller told the House Resources Committee. While one degree might not seem like a lot, the difference between an ice age and the current warm period is only 10 degrees, he said.

Alaska temperatures increased 5 degrees in the summer and 10 degrees in the winter between 1968 and 1995, he said.

Based on projections of continued warming, the state can expect to see improved conditions for shipping and other offshore operations, and a longer agricultural season, Weller said. But melting permafrost will undermine some roads, buildings and pipelines, he said. Fish stocks will improve in some areas, and worsen in others, while stormier weather will reduce catches, he said. Trees will grow faster but there will be longer fire seasons and more insect outbreaks.

Weller said there has been no analysis done of the bottom line for the Alaska

economy, but he said the trends bear watching, not panicking over.

Rep. Joe Green, an Anchorage Republican, noted there was once "a raging argument" in academic circles about whether the warming trends have been part of a natural cycle or constitute a permanent change.

"I think there is no longer a controversy about the effect of the greenhouse on the environment," Weller said. "The majority of scientific opinion is behind the kind of scenarios I've presented here."

Asked for his opinion of what to do, Weller said more fuel-efficient cars, alternative energy sources, conservation, recycling and nuclear power offer some hope for reducing the burning of fossil fuels.

"Realistically, the world's not going to shut down tomorrow," said Rep. Drew Scalzi, a Homer Republican and co-chairman of the Resources Committee.

In an interview, Scalzi said the prospects for Alaska selling its oil, natural gas and coal aren't necessarily any worse as a result of a move toward slower consumption.

"In a way that's good," he said. "The positive effects of that would be selling our resources at a slower rate, and they'd have a longer life span, providing for a more stable economy."

Bill McAllister can be reached at billm@juneauempire.com.

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