Panhandle Meltdown

Local panel reviews effects of climate change

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2006

Juneau doesn't face epic disasters such as loss of sea ice or polar bears, but the gradual warming of the region has captured the mayor's attention.

In the state's capital - like many other places in Alaska and the world - climate records indicate a steady rise in annual average temperatures. The city's annual average temperature has risen some 3 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1940s.

A general consensus among scientists indicates the globe is warming rapidly. What the warming trend has in store for Juneau - where hundreds of thousands of tourists flock each year to see the retreating Mendenhall Glacier - is less clear.

This winter Mayor Bruce Botelho appointed a panel of local scientists to gather the best data available about the warming trend and its present and possible future consequences for Juneau.

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The idea is for Juneau to become "more informed about this global phenomenon that is also happening in our backyard," Botelho said last week.

The panel's work began a few weeks ago. It is expected to last at least six months and result in policy proposals and town meetings.

Reduced snowfall is already worrisome for Juneau outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy skiing at Juneau's Eaglecrest Ski Area. This year's snowpack is one of the thinnest in memory, said Brian Davies, who started working at Eaglecrest 19 years ago.

"Theoretically, there should be another 100 in front of the 68 inches we have right now at the top of the mountain," Davies, who leads the Juneau Ski Patrol, said Friday.

Davies said Juneau skiers are coping by "skiing what they can," even if conditions are on the slushy side.

Mayor Botelho's action came as a surprise to some in Alaska. Though Arctic villages are scrambling to deal with immediate problems, such as coastal erosion or permafrost melt, no other Alaska mayor has taken such a step, said Susanne Fleek, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Conservation Foundation in Anchorage.

Some are praising the mayor's action as a progressive one.

"You couldn't have hit on a more timely topic," said geologist Maynard Miller, founder and leader of the Juneau Icefield Research Program, who has been beating the drum about global warming for decades. "This is very important to Juneau ... . We are going to be in one heck of a warmer climate."

So far, scientists say warming in Juneau could result in potential shifts in land use, winter recreation, fisheries and tourism.

"The mayor is doing us all a great service by bringing this up in a municipal context," said Juneau marine research professor Brendan Kelly, who was tapped to chair the panel in December.

Some Juneau scientists see a thread of optimism for the city and surrounding communities amid the widespread alarm about sea-level rising caused by the melting of major ice sheets. Unlike other coastal towns and islands around the world, the northern Panhandle of Alaska is rising dramatically as the result of glacially influenced geologic uplift.

Juneau could rise another 3 meters over the next few hundred years, says Juneau glaciologist Roman Motyka. The current rate of glacial rebound in Juneau is four times as fast as the current rate of sea-level rise, he said. The future is less clear, however.

The effects of climate change are proving to be "surprising and nonintuitive," said Kelly, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast. That makes it all the more important for the panel to consider the information carefully, without jumping quickly to conclusions, he said.

Scientific Panel on Global Warming

Objectives

• Decide on agreed impacts from climate warming.

• Present findings to the public and the Juneau Assembly.

• Make recommendations to the Assembly about whether Juneau should participate in regional or national initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The panel may also propose other municipal public policy actions.

Panelists:

Tom Ainsworth

Meteorologist in charge

National Weather Service, Juneau Forecast Office

Sandy Boyce

Alaska issues coordinator

Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory

Pacific Northwest Research Station, U.S. Forest Service

Eran Hood

Assistant professor of hydrology

University of Alaska Southeast

Brendan Kelly

Dean of arts and sciences/vice provost for research

University of Alaska Southeast

Peggy Murphy

Research director

Alaska Marine Conservation Council

Jim Powell

Wetlands coordinator

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

The panel's monthly meetings are open to the public and advertised on the city clerk's calendar.

The panel won't be able to nail down Juneau's future climate conditions, but it can offer information that will shed light on "the direction and magnitude" of the potential changes, said panelist Sandy Boyce, Forestry Sciences Laboratory coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in Juneau.

An example of a counterintuitive change is the loss of valuable yellow cedars in Southeast Alaska, which are dying from freezing injuries, Kelly said. A reduced snow pack has eliminated spring insulation for the tree species' roots.

One thing that is frightening for scientists in all fields now is that climate-driven change seems to be occurring faster than they believed possible, Boyce added.

Some changes - reduced snowpack, for one - could have multiplier effects on recreation, fish and wildlife and vegetation in the Juneau area.

There's already a "fine line" between rain and snow in Juneau, said University of Alaska Southeast hydrology professor Eran Hood. "Only a small switch (in temperature) changes us from snow to rain," Hood said.

Reduced snowpacks in the Juneau area could hit close to home for spawning salmon. Many Panhandle streams, especially those on islands, depend on the high-altitude snow for their spring and summer flows.

Hood, who serves on Botelho's new panel, said he would seek snow depth records at Eaglecrest over the last 20 years. These records exist, though they have some gaps, according to ski area General Manager Kirk Duncan.

UAS has gathered its own weather data at Eaglecrest's Ptarmigan Lift but only for the past couple years. "Over time, we'll certainly have a nice record, but it's going to take a while," Hood said.

That points to a kink in climate research in Juneau: Though the scientific panel has some historic data to consider, Juneau's weather records don't extend much further back than the 1940s. Yet, recent observations in Juneau seem to match well with locations elsewhere in North America where the records go back longer.

Some of the recent observations in Juneau include:

• shrinking snowpack;

• reduced summer flow in streams not fed by glaciers;

• increased tree damage or mortality from insects, such as spruce aphids, which can now survive in warmer winters.

Botelho said his eventual goal is for the city to consider policy decisions.

Last fall, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels asked Botelho to sign on to a national lobbying effort by cities to encourage President Bush to sign the Kyoto Accord, an international treaty that sets limits on greenhouse emissions. Greenhouse gases from automobiles, industries and other sources are a major contributor to climate warming, most climatologists agree.

Bush has held that the Kyoto treaty's greenhouse gas reductions unfairly target the U.S. economy, and he resists mandatory reductions.

At least 68 U.S. cities already have committed to reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions. That's an alternative the city of Juneau may consider, once the panel concludes its work, Botelho said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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