Big Melt in Frontierland: Alaska’s Lessons in Global Warming

Seward, Alaska

Sailing out from Seward.

Note: The following story was reported and written in 2007, for The Hartford Courant. Editors there declined to run it. I like the story anyway, and pretty much everything it says has been repeatedly validated by subsequent scientific research. It’s still going on – even in Connecticut. I’ve added a couple of notes in brackets in the text where updates seemed appropriate. — DF

SEWARD, Alaska — The Glacier Express chugged out of Resurrection Bay, and the blowing rain turned to sleet that lashed across the upper deck. White clouds shrouded the dark gray mountains that drop steeply into the sea.

This had been one of Alaska’s coldest and wettest summers. As they headed toward Kenai Fjords National Park, passengers aboard the sightseeing boat, some wrapped in fleece and rain gear in mid-August, had good reason to wonder what had happened to global warming.

But Alaska, frontierland of huge landscapes and volatile weather, is indeed warming. In the past 50 years, the state’s annual average temperature is up as much as 5.5 degrees. Overall, the Arctic region has warmed almost twice as fast as the rest of the world.

The greenhouse gas problem fueled by our crowded and busy civilization affects this remote region now, directly and in many ways — including fading sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost and changes in habitats that have been the same for thousands of years.

But this is not Alaska’s problem alone. The effects of warming in Alaska and the rest of the Arctic will reverberate all over the globe.

Even in Connecticut.

Warmer water in Long Island Sound is pushing some species away — lobsters and winter flounder, for instance. The water level is rising a few millimeters a year; marshes are dying back; some coastal roads flood more often than in the past. Storms blowing in off the ocean are likely to be more intense and destructive. Spring already arrives a little earlier, and there’s less snow on the ground in winter. In some parts of the state, the plant hardiness zones have moved up a notch since 1990.

There is still much debate about how climate change will play out, and what should be done about it. But the world is warming, and scientists say there’s already enough additional heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere to lock in even more warming for decades to come.

In Alaska, a state twice as large as Texas that spreads east to west as far as Atlanta to San Diego, it is happening faster than elsewhere. The region offers a window into the future for the rest of us.

Alaska has 29,000 square miles of glaciers and ice fields, much of them piled into the mountains surrounding the Gulf of Alaska. Many of the glaciers one can see from the cruise boats that sail out of Seward to roam the inlets of Kenai Fjords National Park are shrinking. The melting is accelerating, researchers say.

That’s just one sign of shifting climate.

Permafrost, the frozen ground that underlies large areas of the state, is thawing. This undermines buildings, roads, railways and pipelines. It also releases carbon dioxide and methane that had been trapped in the soil into the atmosphere, contributing further to global warming.

In the Kenai Peninsula below Anchorage, 4,000-year-old peat bogs are drying up. The spruce bark beetle, held in check by cold in the past, has killed tens of millions of white spruce trees. Elsewhere, the tree line is moving uphill, and north, while the band of Arctic tundra is shrinking.

Animals, from polar bears and walrus to beavers and salmon, are adapting, moving into new territory or sometimes losing out. Inupiat natives who have lived in the region for thousands of years do not have a word for the robin, but they are now starting to see them nesting on the Arctic coast.

Warmer temperatures can lead to some potentially positive effects, such as milder winters and longer growing seasons. This September, for the first time in recorded history, both the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast were simultaneously open. These routes can significantly reduce shipping distances between Europe and Asia.

Nations around the Arctic already are exploring how they might be able to exploit the area’s rich mineral resources.

But the increased shipping and industrial activity also raises concerns about accidents. The impact of an oil spill would be far worse in a region that is still remote and inaccessible, far from roads and emergency services.

All that aside, melting of the Arctic sea ice could add significantly to global warming.

A SHRINKING CAP

Graphic: NOAA/Climate.gov

Graphic: NOAA/Climate.gov

The North Pole’s ice cap fluctuates from winter to summer. But the ice has been shrinking dramatically in recent decades. In early September, the end of the summer melt-back, the ice reached its second lowest extent since satellite measurements began in 1979. The lowest was last September.

[On Aug. 26, 2012, Arctic sea ice hit extent a record low point, breaking the 2007 record and nearly 50 percent smaller than the average between 1979 and 2000, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.]

Scientists say the ice loss is accelerating, and could disappear altogether in summer by the end of the century, possibly much sooner.

The Arctic probably has not been free of ice in 125,000 years, since the height of the last interglacial period, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

“Current observations show a much steeper decline than all the [climate] models can reconstruct to date,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist working with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The models are under-predicting the loss of sea ice.”

The impact is both local and global.

The floating ice pack does not add to sea levels as it melts, since its mass is already floating on the ocean. But its shrinking has another effect: White ice reflects most of the sun’s radiation, while the darker open sea absorbs most of that radiation, speeding up the warming of Arctic waters.

That can accelerate warming on a global scale, scientists say. It can also affect the huge ocean currents that drive much of our climate. Those currents bring warmer surface water from the tropics north, where they release heat and help moderate our winters. The cooler water then sinks and flows south. Those currents help control weather patterns far beyond the arctic region; it’s uncertain how changes in this ocean current “conveyor belt” would affect us.

The sea ice is home to a rich ecosystem: Plankton clinging to its underside fuels the cold sea’s food chain. Seals use the ice to rest and give birth. Polar bears roam the ice hunting for seals. Native villagers of the Arctic also hunt seal, and base their culture and their very survival on these and other creatures of the Arctic seas.

As of this August, however, the ice had receded 300 miles or more off Alaska’s north coast. For some, that’s too far.

The loss of ice habitat prompted the federal government to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act last May. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cited the threat of drowning as one consequence of the receding ice.

“The seasons are getting very fast and are all mixed up. The last few years my grandmother was living she said that there was not enough time to put things away like there used to be. When we are done with the willow leaves then comes the sourdocks. These seasons are in too much of a hurry now.”

— Hannah Miller, Nome, from Snowchange 2005, a report on indigenous observations of ecological and climate change.

CLIMATE REFUGEES

The Pacific walrus, an iconic sea mammal weighing up to two tons with huge tusks, spends a lot of time on the ice. They rest, calve and use drifting ice floes as platforms from which to dive hundreds of feet to the floor of the continental shelf for clams and other bottom life.

In recent years they have begun hauling out on land, because the ice is too far away and rests over waters beyond the Continental shelf, too deep for the walrus to feed. Gathering by the thousands, they must rely on a fixed location for food, and it’s unclear whether the near-shore sea floor can sustain them.

Walruses are easily spooked and will stampede to the water. Thousands of young walrus were trampled along the Russian coast in the summer of 2007, scientists reported.

Ice along the Alaskan shore is thinner now, forms later in the fall and melts back earlier in spring. In coastal villages, hunters can no longer rely on near-shore sea ice on which to stalk the seals they rely on for food, clothing and various implements, and must travel sometimes hundreds of miles by boat to hunt.

Shore-bound ice used to offer villages on the northwest coast of Alaska a buffer against the rough seas stirred up by autumn storms. Without the ice, the storms are eating away the shoreline and forcing people to relocate. Dozens of villages have been affected.

Five of the villages will need to be moved in the next five to 10 years, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, said Larry Merculieff, an Aleut from the Pribiloff Islands who works as a writer, environmentalist and advocate for Native cultures.

“We’re going to have our first American climate refugees here in Alaska. And I say first, because there are going to be many more, and not just in Alaska.”

A pair of kayakers approach Aialik Glacier's 400-foot-high, mile-wide face.

A pair of kayakers approach Aialik Glacier’s 400-foot-high, mile-wide face.

400 INCHES OF SNOW

The ocean swelled higher as the Glacier Express sailed from the protected water of Resurrection Bay and into the open Gulf of Alaska. Far off to starboard, Bear Glacier splayed across a gap in the mountains. Driving sleet and the churn of the waves sent quite a few people below.

Eventually the boat rounded a craggy cape into Aialik Bay, and nature offered a reminder that everything, especially the weather, is relative: A pair of horned puffins, with chubby black-and-white bodies and bright yellow and orange beaks, bobbed in the wind-thrashed, near-freezing water, perfectly at home. From nearby cliffs, more puffins, cormorants and murres swooped down onto the sea to swim and dive for fish.

The sea calmed a bit, and we steamed up the 22-mile fjord to have a close look at Aialik Glacier.

Kenai Fjords National Park is a remote, 600,000-acre stretch of coastline in south central Alaska carved out during the advance and retreat of the last ice age.

The Harding Ice Field is a remnant of that era: 700 square miles of white that blankets the mountaintops above the coast southwest of Seward. More than three dozen glaciers, tongues of royal blue-tinged ice, drop from it into valleys or toward the sea.

Most of them are receding.

At least 400 inches of snow falls on the Harding Ice Field each year, eventually compacting into ice. But researchers have found the ice field has shrunk about 70 feet, the height of a five story building, over the past 40 years.

All that fresh water rushing into the sea adds up.

Glacial melt around the world may account for a third of the sea level rise recorded in the past century, according to research by Mark Meier of the University of Colorado in Boulder. About a third of that came from Alaska.

Seasonal runoff from ice caps and glaciers is a major source of fresh water around the world, so the shrinking supply is cause for great concern.

More freshwater running into the Arctic Ocean from rivers in the far north reduces its salinity and density and, like warming, could disrupt the huge ocean currents.

GLACIAL MELTDOWN

Aialik Glacier, Alaska

Aialik Glacier

Like a massive frozen river, Aialik Glacier grinds down four miles from Harding Ice Field, ending in a 400-foot-high, mile-wide face at the head of Aialik Bay.

The Glacier Express drew up a quarter mile away, and the pilot killed the engine. A park service guide advised the dozens of people clustered at the open rear deck to stop talking for a moment, and listen to the glacier speak.

The mass of blue ice groaned and creaked and snapped as it pushed down into the bay and up against a moraine of rock it has plowed up at the bottom of the bay.

Sea birds perched on chunks of ice floating in the slushy water. And then a chunk of ice the size of several McMansions broke free with a loud crack and crashed into the sea. Birds scattered, and the newborn iceberg bobbed up, pushing a wave into the bay.

Aialik Glacier is stable — the input of snow is keeping up with melting and calving. It is unlike most of its neighbors.

To the north, Portage Glacier rests in a remote valley beside the road to Whittier. It’s receding so fast — 9 miles in the past 30 years — that it’s no longer visible from the visitor center built to view the glacier in 1986. You have to take a boat ride on Portage Lake to see it.

Exit Glacier, Alaska

Signposts mark the retreat of Exit Glacier.

Exit Glacier, another arm of the Harding Ice Field, is melting back about 10 inches a day. You can drive to within a few hundred yards of it and hike a well-trod path that takes you through shrubby woods, past bursts of pink fireweed and over gray rock scraped clean by tons of moving ice. Along the road and the trail, markers dating back to 1815 show how far the glacier used to reach.

While much smaller in size and potential impact than the massive ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, glaciers and ice caps like the Harding Ice Field hold enough water worldwide to contribute up to a foot or more of sea level rise, said Ekwurzel, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

THE RISING SEA

Sea levels around the globe have risen between 4 and 10 inches over the past century. (The measurement varies in part because in some cases, land is rising or subsiding along the coasts.)

The UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year predicted the seas will rise another 7 to 23 inches through this century, depending on levels of greenhouse gas emissions and which climate models are used. That alone could inundate some island communities and lead to increased flooding of lowlands and more severe storm impacts along coastlines.

In Connecticut, that means more flooding and erosion in coastal areas, and greater danger from storm surges during hurricanes and nor’easters. [The devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy in November 2012 on some shoreline areas are evidence of this: Though a powerful storm, it did not even rate hurricane classification when it made landfall.]

Ekwurzel said that while the climate prediction models used by the UN’s climate panel have been vastly improved over the last 20 years, but they still leave out a couple of important factors.

One is ice sheet instability. Recent observations show that meltwater can run down cracks in the thick ice and in effect lubricate the bottom of the ice sheets, speeding the movement of ice into the sea.

Also missing from panel’s projections is the ability of land and water to absorb carbon dioxide.

“The world’s oceans have absorbed about 20 times as much heat as the atmosphere over the past half century,” Ekwurzel said. But warmer oceans will absorb less CO2, leaving more in the atmosphere, leading to more warming and sea level rise, she said.

This acceleration of sea level rise has scientists worried.

The amount of water stored in glaciers is small compared to the major ice sheets: Greenland holds enough water to raise sea levels about 23 feet. Antarctica’s ice, if melted, would raise the seas about 187 feet.

But Meier, of the University of Colorado, said melting glaciers will play a more significant role in the coming decades. By the year 2100, the added water from glaciers could boost sea level rise to as high as 38 inches — nearly a meter. And Meier noted, more than 100 million people live with one meter of the current sea level.

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