Is Alaska melting?

Surveys over the past four years confirm that Alaska's hundreds of glaciers are melting at a rapid pace. The Columbia glacier now melts at half a mile a year, and has retreated eight miles in the past 16 years. The permafrost - ground that has been frozen for thousands of years - is frozen no longer. As underground ice melts, roads are cracked and broken, or twisted out of shape; buildings and telephone poles tilt as if dislodged by an earthquake.

Is this the face of global warming?

Atmospheric scientists have predicted that a global warming of our climate would show its face early in the Northern regions. What they are finding only confirms their fears. While the average global temperature has risen 1 degree F. in the past 100 years, in Alaska, Siberia, and Northwest Canada it has gone up 5 degrees F. in 30 years.

While Anchorage saw little snow this winter, other parts of the state had plenty. More snow may fall in winter as the climate warms, because warmer air holds more moisture - which means more rain and more snow. Yet for the past several years, the summers have been longer and drier, melting whatever snow added to the glaciers during the winter - and more besides.

Further north, at places like Sachs Harbour, the changes are even more evident. The western Arctic is warming at a rate approximately three to five times the global average. Temperatures are so much warmer - at times 25 degrees F. higher than normal - that barn swallows have appeared, and, for the first time in memory, salmon are found in sea. Mosquitoes now survive in the polar desert. Arctic sea ice is an estimated 40 percent thinner and has shrunk in area by 14 percent. Something is happening.

Yet there is more going on here than just the melting of millennial ice. The taiga, an ancient forest, is dying. Environmental stresses have weakened it: heavy snows in winter have damaged the trees. Warm, dry summers have stunted their growth; spruce bark beetles are finishing the job. The beetles are thriving in the new warmer Alaska. Their territory is spreading, and the vast forest is dying because of them.

Scientists estimate that a third to half of all the white spruce in Alaska has been killed in just 15 years. Researchers have discovered that shrubs are growing larger and spreading across areas of tundra that have been heretofore barren.

Something is happening.

Talk to climatologists, and they'll tell you something happened around 1976. Since then, glaciers have been melting more quickly, El Ninos have happened more frequently, and Alaska, Northwest Canada, and Siberia have become 5 degrees F. warmer. Given the layers and complexity of our atmospheric machinery, these revelations may seem hard to sort out. Are the changes natural or man-made?

Techniques that allow us to sample ancient climate indicators from lake bottoms and arctic ice show that before human civilization rose, our climate varied wildly, rising and falling in average global temperature within a few years' time. Human civilization has risen in a period of relative calm and stability during the last 11,000 years. Human civilization might not survive a period of renewed volatility, whatever the cause. Yet this natural ability of the earth's climate to fluctuate doesn't get us off the hook, as some would hope. Instead, this new evidence shows we are playing with fire - poking a dangerous animal with a stick. By pumping gases into the atmosphere at levels far above what they should be, we are tampering with a system that is capable of possibly disastrous fluctuations.

That was the message the National Academy of Science delivered to the Bush administration last week. The scientists told President Bush that while it is impossible to determine how much of global warming can be attributed to human influence, there's no doubt that it is happening, no doubt that humans are playing a role, and no doubt that it will have profound consequences for people and the planet. The Bush administration has changed its tone; the president was to make a statement on global warming yesterday.

Here, Bush has an opportunity to establish himself, and the US, as a world leader. Should he commit this country's resources to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the US economy would benefit through the manufacture and export of clean energy technology that private industry has already developed. New energy technology is poised to become a booming international market as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. The US can position itself to be a leading maker and seller of that technology, or simply another buyer.

We can deny that we've created global warming single-handedly. We can say this is a natural fluctuation in the earth's climate. We can follow the example of tobacco executives and Exxon Corporation and deny the obvious - deny what our own research tells us.

What we cannot deny is that we are in a period of significant climate change. We cannot deny that the damage is already being done. Three years ago, science writer William K. Stevens called what is happening in Alaska an "ecological holocaust" - a term both fitting and ironic, given that when the Holocaust of World War II was occurring, so many tried to look the other way.

As in the Second World War, the world's great nations are preparing - uniting - to fight a battle that the US has yet to join. Perhaps this nation will prove itself a leader in the end. I have little doubt we will soon join the fight. We can't deny it any longer. Something is happening.

Ed Hunt is the editor of Tidepool.org news service.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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