Climate change is playing havoc with rare species and a proud way of life
"I grew up in Alaska and never went swimming in the ocean. It was too cold," says Anchorage author Charles Wohlforth, whose recent book The Whale and the Supercomputer richly chronicles the region's climate change from the perspectives of both native whale hunters and scientists. "This summer the kids and my wife and I went swimming in Prince William Sound. I got the same weird feeling that the [Inupiat] elders, who saw the change coming first, told me about."
Ask the native elders or others in Barrow, and they will confirm Wohlforth's observation. And now there are stark data to bolster years of anecdotal evidence. Last summer was Alaska's hottest ever, a pall of thick haze and rampaging fires that by late July reached all the way to America's East Coast. While blazes in Arizona and California made headlines, some 83 percent of the entire U.S. burn area was in Alaska, with nearly 6.4 million acres of the state's central and southeastern regions up in flames--not surprisingly, the state's worst burn season ever.
To complicate matters, the insects came fast and furious. Multiplying at unprecedented rates in the warmer weather, various leaf miners, bark beetles, sawflies, and other pests infested well over a million acres during the growing season, says state entomologist Roger Burnside.
University of Alaska forest ecologist Glenn Juday is convinced that the one-two punch of fires and bugs is a sign of climate change. He leads a visitor through the crackling-dry underbrush in a stand of spruce, birch, and poplar trees in the Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest and points out how moss, usually damp, crackles with each step. The air smells of roasted timber.
Defining moment. Canada's Inuit people are just as worried about the changes as their Eskimo relatives in Alaska. "I believe that we find ourselves at the very cusp of a defining moment in the history of the planet," Sheila Watt-Cloutier of Canada's far-north Nunavut Territory told a U.S. Senate hearing last month. She is chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, representing 155,000 indigenous peoples in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and Russia. She grew up traveling by dog sled in northern Quebec and now fears that warming will destroy her ancient culture.
In Barrow, the weather regime has locals talking. Fishers are astounded by hundreds of salmon they are netting from nearby lagoons. Since fish do not spawn here and historically are rare this far north, relatives from south of the Bering Strait had to teach Barrow natives how to dry salmon on racks for curing. Porpoises were spotted offshore, another novelty.
A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says 184 native Alaskan villages are threatened by severe flooding and erosion due in part to warming. Destruction of four seacoast villages is feared. One, Shishmaref, is on a rapidly disappearing coastal island in the Bering Sea. Its 562 people have voted to move to a new site a dozen miles across a lagoon.
Out in the Arctic Ocean itself, signs of change are everywhere. At the invitation of the National Science Foundation, U.S. News flew aboard a bright red U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to the 420-foot icebreaker Healy several dozen miles off Barrow for a five-day glimpse at scientific efforts to measure the profound changes underway in the region's marine ecosystem. A few patches of rapidly melting ice were no match for the ship's thick hull. The surface waters were much warmer than normal, running in the mid-40s rather than the more usual near-freezing temperatures.