Alaska editorial: Delegation needs to convey urgency of Arctic warming

This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

Posted: Tuesday, November 23, 2004

A distinguished group of scientists from Arctic nations, looking at the science on global warming, has issued a report that should give every Alaskan pause. Global warming is rapidly heating up the Arctic, says the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Human activities - mainly, ever increasing levels of greenhouse gases - are fueling the warming trend. Widespread signs of disruption are noticeable, especially in the Arctic. And across the globe, in the decades to come, it's only going to get worse.

"Global temperature (is) now rising at a rate unprecedented in the experience of modern human society," the climate report says. And Alaska is at the front lines of drastic changes starting to unfold. "Arctic average temperature has risen at almost twice the rate as the rest of the world."

With this warming, the northern polar ice cap is melting. Arctic sea ice has shrunk by 8 percent and will melt even faster this century. The part of the Greenland ice cap that melts in summer has expanded by 16 percent. Disappearing sea ice may drive polar bears and ringed seals to extinction before the century is out. Fresh water from that melting ice runs into the oceans, driving up sea levels and disrupting currents that even out temperatures around the globe. In Alaska, Shishmaref is tumbling into the Bering Sea, Nome's downtown is inundated by a fall storm surge, and Bethel's seawall is crumbling. Many more Alaska and Arctic communities face similar trouble as the globe warms and storms grow more intense.

Indigenous peoples will be hit particularly hard. Annual runs of salmon, a staple of many Native diets, will continue to be erratic. Shrinking sea ice makes it harder to hunt for marine mammals. Rainy winter weather turns snow and ice to slush, making winter travel in the Bush difficult or impossible. Melting permafrost accelerates the erosion that eats away at their communities.

Elsewhere in Alaska, the North Slope's winter oil drilling season, which requires firmly frozen tundra, has shrunk by half, from 200 days to 100. Frost heaves wreak havoc on roads in the Interior, as permafrost melts.

Remember our record-breaking wildfires this summer? Expect more of that. The same goes for insect outbreaks, like the bark beetle epidemic that has ravaged millions of acres in Alaska. Populations of the western Steller sea lion, fur seals and several types of seabirds have plummeted. In all cases, a leading suspect is global warming.

Sen. Ted Stevens called for oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to help pay for dealing with global warming impacts in Alaska's northern coastal areas. There are better reasons to support ANWR exploration, but this one is filled with both significance and irony.

Humans are supremely adaptable organisms. But the faster the globe warms, the more damage that results and the more it costs for humans to hold their ground. At some point, the upheaval from climate warming may outpace our ability to adapt to it.

What can Alaskans do?

For starters, we need to recognize, as the report says, that Arctic residents are the canaries in the coal mine for global warming. We are seeing the early warning of the crisis to come, right here in Alaska, right now.

Then what?

"Strong near-term action to reduce emissions is required," the report says.

President Bush has long disagreed, arguing that more study is needed. That puts his political view ahead of the scientific consensus - as the risk only increases.

Yes, things like oscillating ocean currents, volcanoes and variable solar output contribute to global warming. But "human influences, resulting primarily from increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, have now become the dominant factor," the Arctic scientists say. President Bush is gambling with the future of the planet.

Alaskans need their Republican congressional delegation to talk sense to their colleague in the White House. The famously incurious president has no idea what global warming is doing to Alaska. The Arctic is a long way from Crawford, Texas.

This comprehensive picture of how the Arctic will suffer from global warming may be remembered as the "Silent Spring" of this generation. Rachel Carson's 1962 book highlighted the looming disaster from rapidly expanding use of pesticides. Her book aroused the conscience of the nation and helped produce new pesticide safety rules.

Global warming could produce devastation that makes pesticide contamination look quaint in comparison. The Arctic scientists' report on the danger ahead should provoke the same sense of urgency and commitment to action.

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