Rainforest Research

Arctic scientist raises questions about how climate change affects Southeast Alaska

Posted: Monday, June 27, 2005

On a mission to collect more knowledge about global climate change, Ming-ko Woo migrates north for months each year to study water, ice and snow in the Mackenzie River Basin.

Called by some the Amazon of the North, this remote, cold area of Canada is home to the largest Canadian river, flowing north to the Arctic Ocean, and millions of lakes.

Last week, Woo got sidetracked in a rainforest.

The scientist visited Juneau, happily getting his shoes wet in a spongy bog and fens at Peterson Creek north of Auke Bay and breathing in the wet smell of the forest.

It didn't take long for Woo to start considering the relationship between water-logged Southeast Alaska and his arctic Canada.

Climate isn't local - it's global, says Woo, an Ontario hydrologist with McMaster University and program leader of a research network of nearly 80 scientists from around Canada who are studying how climate change is affecting water resources in the Mackenzie River Basin.

He spent a couple days at the University of Southeast Alaska last week, meeting with fellow hydrologist Eran Hood and other UAS faculty, before traveling up to Fairbanks to speak at an arctic lecture series.

The most intense climate research in North America is occurring in the arctic, where warming is threatening Native villages, tundra ecology and marine mammals.

In comparison, the effects of climate change in Southeast Alaska are under-researched, Woo says.

Local scientists don't disagree.

"Amen," said Brendan Kelly, dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alaska Southeast and a fellow Arctic scientist.

"In some ways, we are a victim of our own good fortune. A lot of the environmentally distressing issues that concern Alaska are most pronounced (in the north)," Kelly said.

"Hence, no funding," Kelly added.

"I'm optimistic that there will be a shift," he said. "It really does matter what is happening on the Juneau Icefield ... What is happening with our glaciers and our weather is part of a much larger picture," Kelly said.

An example of the connection between the Southeast Alaska rainforest and the Arctic is the so-called Pineapple Express air flow.

The North Pacific coastline gets the first hit from the Pineapple Express, which brings moist air from the South Pacific northward in a big swoosh.

"This is the receiving end of the western air flow. How this place responds is very significant," Woo says.

The Pineapple Express can be carried by strong winds over the coastal mountains into the Mackenzie basin, or may turn abruptly north.

When it travels to the basin, the Pineapple Express loses moisture and produces unusually warm and dry winter conditions there.

Based on a combination of data and climate modeling, Woo believes the future of the Mackenzie basin holds earlier snow melting and less-intense ice-related floods.

Looking at data for Southeast Alaska, one of the most interesting observations (at least, from a hydrologist's point of view) is the overall increase of winter precipitation, he said.

"In the recent two decades, there was a significant increase in winter precipitation in the Gulf of Alaska and the Panhandle," Woo said.

"Across the (coastal range) divide, there is less precipitation," he added.

Local scientists have also noted the gradual increase in temperature in the Juneau area in recent decades, as well as the fast retreat of many glaciers like the Mendenhall.

"Climate is a big question here because people want to understand glacial retreat," Hood said.

Woo said he hopes someday to see scientists hot on the trail of climatic trends in coastal rainforests, such as Southeast Alaska and Chile.

"How does climate variability affect the stream flows?" Woo asked. "What about the interaction between forests and glaciers?"

It's not just basic curiosity on Woo's part. He has old ties to the north Pacific coastal rainforest, which he studied while pursuing a doctorate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Coming to Juneau "reminds me of the good old days of doing forest hydrology," Woo said.

UAS will continue to recruit new research scientists and expand its environmental science and biology program, Kelly said.

But at this time, there's not much effort to look at Southeast Alaska's rainforest from a climate change perspective, Kelly said.

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

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