Almost 12 years ago, we embarked upon a new research effort at our state university. The idea was simple: Meet the needs of those planning for our state’s future by providing information on climate change that was local, relevant and scientifically valid.
First named the Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning (SNAP), we soon had to add the word “Arctic” to our name, because we realized that Canada and other countries from the polar region were as eager for long-term forecasts of climate change trends as Alaska was.
In the Arctic and sub-Arctic, climate change is accelerated and its effects are profound. This is primarily the result of what is known as the “albedo effect”: As we lose reflective ice and snow due to warming, more heat-absorbing dark ground and water are exposed. Thus, local warming gets even more extreme.
Just where climate change effects are extreme, data is often limited. Few weather stations offer long-term reliable histories. Populations are sparse. So we glean information from a variety of sources and combine that with historical data and the accumulated knowledge of people who live on the landscape. All point incontrovertibly to a warming environment.
A fire burns in the boreal forest near Fairbanks, Alaska.
Urban problems too
About half the population of Alaska lives in Anchorage. Here, livelihoods tend to be more urban, but recreation often depends on snow – snow that is not showing up.
The Iditarod sled dog race has had to move its starting line and reroute mushers. Tourism businesses are suffering. The city, like many communities around the state, is working on a climate change adaptation plan.
Meanwhile, around the state capital of Juneau and other Southeast Alaska communities, the mountains are losing their snow caps early and gaining them late. Water is flowing downstream out of season, which may impact everything from salmon stocks to hydroelectric power generation. Iconic yellow cedar trees are dying due to lack of protective snow cover on their roots.
Here, as elsewhere in the north, whole ecosystems are changing, putting some migratory birds such as eiders and some small Arctic mammals such as pikas and marmots at risk. Also threatened are lifestyles and livelihoods linked to Alaska’s caribou herds, which may be losing the lichen they need to survive.
Mitigation, adaptation and change
Although mitigation of climate change via reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is crucial, even the most optimistic scenarios include substantial shifts in temperature for many decades into the future. While adapting to this change is likely to be costly, failing to adapt will be costlier still.
Recognizing this, Alaska’s communities and land managers are taking action.
For the past year, a statewide plan has been in development. The University of Alaska and the municipality of Anchorage are creating a Climate Action Plan to address issues as diverse as invasive beetles, cultural loss and lack of skiing opportunities. For the village of Newtok, planning meant seeking federal funding for total relocation.
When a glacier at the heart of a National Park is rapidly melting, the thaw itself becomes part of the educational mission of the park. Federal agencies, including the National Park Service, the Department of Defense, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are working with my planning group and other partners to incorporate climate change into their visions of the future.
For those who live and work in Alaska, adapting to such profound changes in our state is hard. Failing to do so would likely be catastrophic.
Nancy Fresco receives climate change research funding via grants from diverse governmental and non-governmental sources, including but not limited to the US Department of Agriculture, the US National Park Service, the Government of the Northwest Territories, the US Bureau of Land Management, the Alaska Department of Transportation, and the US Department of Defense.