16 August 2007

The Changing Alaskan Arctic/ Sub-Arctic

Warning, I'm going to get on my soapbox a little here. People ask me all the time if I've noticed the effects of climate change in the north. I have. As a scientist I have seen reams of data from various colleagues that all show the same worrying trends. I am not going to talk about data or figures here though, I want to present my personal observations about the changes that have occurred in the time that I have lived in Alaska. In the last seven years folks. The arctic is sort of the bell weather of change but I know that changes like this are happening all over the world in your communities too - all the "unusual" & "record setting" weather is just one example. Dispersed in between my observations will be photos (taken from the air) of icebergs and glaciers that I have the privilege to experience in my landscape that are melting away - I want to share with you the beauty of this ice, especially if you have never seen it before and as it is particularly vulnerable to climate change. And a quick note: I will not be replying to comments that demand that this isn't happening, I mean come on, even the current US president Dubya has finally admitted it is. If you believe there is no change or that the degree of change is natural arguing with you is like arguing with a believer over some sacredly held interpretation of text; it's pointless. I will however, address thoughtful questions.

Permafrost is melting. This is causing houses to sink and tilt into the landscape, causing bike paths & roads that were once even surfaces to bump up. It is causing lakes to disappear (through a process called thermakarst). Ironically, the ice roads that oil companies use to access their wells are melting meaning they can use them less and less time out of the year.

Lakes & wetlands are disappearing both because of thermakarst & because of increased air temperatures.

As lakes & wetlands disappear they fill in with shrubs and trees. The habitats of wild things that like marshy land shrinks. More lakes freeze solid in the winter as they are shallower. This means less fish stock (including the economically valuable salmon) is surviving the winter which means there are less fish in the oceans.

The ice is melting. Glaciers are melting for multiple reasons. As the temperature of sea water has raised a degree the are melting faster where they meet the ocean, with increased heat in the atmosphere more of them is evaporating into the air, with increased rain caused by changing weather patterns they are pooling up more and melting from the top down as well as the bottom up.

Calving glacier melting is causing changes in water temperature and availability of ice for habitat of ice seals. The bergs are lasting less and less long into the season, the calving occurs with greater frequency.

Glacier melting and warmer temperatures have increased the shrub & tree lines in the arctic. Whole landscapes and views that once existed have disappeared.

Increased fires in interior Alaska have led to a decrease in trees and an increase in heat loss to the atmosphere and a reduction in CO2 recycling by plants and an increase in smoky skies which affect living quality.

Bug infestations such as birch bark beetle and leaf miner which used to cycle every ten years have now been heavy for three years running in interior Alaska causing these trees to be drier and more susceptible to flame. Between flame & bugs the lowlands of Alaska may become grassland while the uplands become shrubby.

Changing winds have increased the impact of mosquitoes on caribou & reindeer on the north slope as these animals are finding less and less relief. More die from insect harassment and from the energy required to keep moving to keep them off.

The ocean is rising. Arctic villages are sinking into the waves and are having to be pulled back from the edges.

The oceans are not freezing as completely or as securely to the shore. Fast ice, which allows both polar bears and people to get out on the ice is disappearing stranding polar bears on land causing an increase in bear/ human conflict.

The rivers are not freezing as completely for as long. Rivers are the traditional method of getting around bush Alaska and the time that they are unstable - where you can not dog mush, snow machine, or boat on them - is increasing making communities more isolated.

Snow is not what it used to be. It falls later, it melts earlier. If you question this note that the last 3 years the famous Iditarod sled dog race re-start location has had to be moved north from it's traditional location as there is not enough snow.

Parasites are showing up in Alaskan wild animals that have never been seen in Alaska before.

The arctic is the place where change is happening fastest. Look around you, every where people are saying "This is really abnormal weather" or "Record year for this (fill in the blank with the weather in your area)". This is happening everywhere the world over. The climate is changing folks. And it is our habits that are doing it.

Note: I do not use "global warming" as I feel this term is both mis-leading and a political salve. People feel better if you talk about warming, they feel they wouldn't mind if it warmed. But the truth is that it is global change which exacerbates all climate patterns. It makes the cold colder in the winter, the hot hotter in the summer, the dryness dryer, the wetness wetter, and the storms bigger and more unpredictable. The US administration which has belatedly admitted that climate change is happening would prefer us to use warming because warming sounds milder. It lulls us and keeps us from acting - words are power and how we describe something can take or give strength to it.


  1. i like your version of soapbox quite a bit. a practical informed opinion.

    and i'll be including it in the just posts for august, sister.

  2. Thank you for this. Incredible pictures and information. As a resident of the southern part of the US we are terribly aware of global changing as we nervously watch the hurricanes once again.

  3. It breaks my heart.

    I look around me at shops stocking the most ridiculously expensive unusable goods and people driving around in petrol guzzling cars.

    And their unconcern kills me. Because it is based on ignorance of the things that truly bring happiness. The wind through a tree, clear stars in a winter's evening, knowing that tigers are roaming around somewhere and that every creature on earth is thriving within balanced eco-systems.

    How can they not care??

    Even myself. How many plastics are still in my house? In how many ways do I still buy into the consumer dream?

  4. I'm not gonna pretend I have anything wise to say.

    cause I don't.

    all I know is that this scares the hell out of me and I do not know what to do.

  5. thank you for this. i've been thinking about climate change (and you specifically, living in a region where you see the first and most dramatic effects)a lot lately. i nearly wept last week when i saw pictures of what pine bark beetles are doing to forests now that it's warm enough for them to complete a life cycle every year. and the bears in tahoe? those poor, desperate creatures. who can blame them for breaking into homes for sustenance?

  6. Thank you for a very insightful and well described explanation of the changes to our planet, I will be referring folks to your blog! I found you coutesy of Orangeblossums.
    I am in NM and acutely aware of the changes.

  7. jen ~ thank you.

    painted maypole ~ yes, indeed. Change in ocean temperatures changes the currents and the winds and increases the occurence of hurricanes.

    hel ~ it is heartbreaking. But we must do our best and have hope. And there is hope. We may not always suceed but liek all things, there are things we stive for.

    crazymumma ~ yeah, it scares me too. I think the main thing you can do is try to be an informed consumer and try to reduce your footprint on the planet. And encourage others to do the same.

    elizabeth ~ spruce bark beetle is changing our forests and landscapes forever and is increasing the incidence of fire.

    doris rose ~ thank you! (and orangeblossoms!).

  8. What is thermakarst? Karst topography created by melting ice? This was an excellent post and as we head into another hot, dry, and fire prone austral summer I'll be thinking about ways to change.

  9. yes, please elaborate on thermakarst!

  10. sally forth & froghair ~

    Thermokarst is karst surface topography (bumpy, hummock ground) that results when the ice on top of a surface underlain by permafrost melts.

    So what happens is that as the permafrost melts thermokarst happens changing the nature of landscape (and often releasing huge amounts of methane trapped under the permafrost) and making it boggier and wetter. When the permafrost melts huge pieces of the landscape seem to collapse into thermokarst. This impacts both the natural and man-made structures.

    For some pictures of thermokarst in Alaska follow this link:

  11. Hi,
    My name is jet and I am a grade 5 student in Victoria BC. I am creating a pamphlet about a region of Canada for a school project and am writing to ask if I can use pictures from your website in my project. Would this be okay? I look forward to hearing from you. Please email me at my teacher’s email address as soon as possible. It is: sane_46@hotmail.com
    Thank you for your time.


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