State official speaks at climate talks

DEC Commissioner Hartig talks about Alaska's experience with global warming

Posted: Thursday, December 17, 2009

Alaska is on the front line of global climate change with melting glaciers and softening permafrost, an Alaska official told delegates during the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen.

Angela Alston / National Snow And Ice Data Center
Angela Alston / National Snow And Ice Data Center

Larry Hartig, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, explained Tuesday how parts of the state are already feeling an impact, as is the rest of the Arctic.

"Our climate is changing," Hartig said. "It's warming faster and more than the rest of the world."

Showing pictures of Nome's eroding coastline being pounded by winter storms because there was no ice barrier to protect it, and Selawik River landslides caused by thawing permafrost, Hartig used data from the Alaska Climate Research Center to show the warming trends in Alaska in recent decades.

During the past 60 years, air temperatures have risen 3.1 degrees, he said.

Projections show that will continue, depending on region. Juneau and most of Southeast will see temperatures warming by about a degree over the next 40-50 years. The most extreme changes will be in Barrow, the nation's northernmost city, where temperatures are expected to rise six degrees or more.

"We're seeing physical evidence of this in the retreating glaciers, and also in the ice pack," Hartig said.

What's troubling, Hartig said, was that Arctic ice was not only later and smaller than in the past, but also has been decreasing at a rate that's greater than predicted by modeling.

Among Alaska's responses for its most threatened communities was a seawall to armor the shore at Kivalina and a proposed relocation of the exposed community of Shishmaref on an island just north of the Bering Strait.

Both responses face challenges, however, as a powerful winter storm quickly tore a gap in Kivalina's protective barrier, and relocation can be prohibitively expensive.

The state also is facing troubling cultural questions with the relocation of villages, Hartig said.

"It's not like the western world were people move for job opportunities," he said. "People are very tied to the land."

At the same time, the state and the pubic have big investments in schools, village water systems and people's houses.

"It's very difficult for these villages to decide to move, they have to have time to think about this," Hartig said.

Hartig's presentation was called "Climate Change in the Arctic: Working Together to Keep Communities and Indigenous Culture Intact," said Weld Royal, spokeswoman for DEC.

She said Hartig was invited by the U.S. State Department to be part of the U.S. delegation, one of only a handful of non-federal officials invited.

Alaska has 31 villages considered to be "imminently threatened," Hartig said.

Hartig said that in places such as western Alaska's Newtok, threatened by erosion, a new community of Mertarvik is being built. His speech was at one of the side events at the conference.

Hartig took questions about native Alaskan culture, oil companies responsibility for and role in adapting to the warming, and impacts on fisheries.

Hartig chairs Gov. Sean Parnell's Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, first established by former Gov. Sarah Palin. It includes representatives from agencies which are both researching climate change and implementing policies aimed at lessening its impact.

Palin recently attacked efforts to address climate change and urged President Obama to boycott Copenhagen.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250.

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