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August 2009 - Going north to discuss climate change

We have been talking about carbon dioxide in the last few articles as it is the primary greenhouse gas produced by man's activities, and we'll come back to it again later. Now, let's look at some effects of climate change in Alaska and Canada's Northwest Territories in the Arctic region.

Why go north to discuss climate change? Why not discuss local changes? Future articles will touch on the subject of local, observable climate change effects but some dramatic and very observable changes are taking place to the north. While global temperatures are about 1 degree F higher, Alaska is some 3.4 degrees F higher. These changes give us some glimpses of the future that are startling.

On Bank's Island in the high Canadian Arctic, an Inuvialuit villager walked out of his home several years ago and saw something he had never seen before. It was a robin. Yes, the same one that we see on our lawns here every year. This bird had been seen in Alaska before but rarely seen above the tree line. Since this villager lived 500 miles above the tree line, and north of Alaska, it had not been seen there before and there was no name for it in his language.

In this same village they had recently caught fish in their nets that were totally new to them. They had caught sockeye salmon. This species is normally seen 1,000 miles away off the Pacific coast of British Columbia and Alaska but not in the Canadian high Arctic. These and other events were recorded by CBC Radio.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book "Field Notes From A Catastrophe," captures additional stories of the changing climate in the far north. Shishmaref, Alaska, is a small village, inhabited for centuries by the Inupiat people on the island of Sarichef. It is located off the coast of Seward Peninsula with a population today of about 600. The sea ice there has now started to form weeks later in the fall and disappear earlier in the spring. Seal hunting has been a way of life for these people for as long as anyone could remember. But now the ice is forming later in the fall, and when the seals arrive offshore at that time, the men can no longer use dogsleds or snowmobiles. The ice is too "mushy" and dangerous. The men have had to switch to boats.

This delayed ice formation has the effect of exposing the shoreline adjacent to the village to storm surges that the sea ice normally protected them from. After storms in October 1997 and October 2001 that eroded more than 125 feet of land away and destroyed or damaged a number of homes, the villagers made a difficult decision. They voted to move the entire village. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was enlisted to find the people a new village site and to relocate them at an estimated cost of over $180 million to the American taxpayers. Climate change is costing us, right now, and this is just one of the ways.

In a February 2009 report by United States Geological Survey (USGS), the authors cited large and increasing annual amounts of coastal erosion on the north coast of Alaska. Over a five-year period between 2002 and 2007, they found that the erosion rates more than doubled and were as high as 45 feet per year. It is more than just the land that is lost. The report went on to state that cultural sites, some thousands of years old, have either been lost or are now at risk, and that archaeologists are at work now to try and secure and study some of these areas.

Other recent observations are also interesting. A report from Anchorage Alaska, July 17, 2009, stated that a "giant black blob," miles long, had appeared off the coast of Alaska between Barrow and Wainwright. It was discovered by hunters who then informed officials. Samples were taken by the Coast Guard and studies are still ongoing at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). However, preliminary test results, released initially, "showed the blob wasn't oil, but a plant — a massive bloom of algae." While it does not appear to be toxic, like one of the algae blooms on Lake Champlain, it made the local people feel very uneasy, as they never could remember seeing it before.

Global warming is here, now, and has been under way for several decades. Why are these and other changes so obvious in the north? Climate scientists and researchers are not yet sure of all the reasons, but two appear to play a large role.

The first has to do with the wind patterns and ocean currents that exist on the planet that move heat from the tropics and distribute it northward (or southward if one is below the equator). One of the principles of climate is that heat, or cold, tends to distribute its property through the use of air and water currents, to areas that are either cooler or warmer.

A second factor is that of the albedo effect. Clean snow or ice reflects in excess of 90 percent of the incoming solar radiation back into space. But when these warmer currents melt back some of this snow and ice cover, it exposes land, and/or water, to incoming solar radiation. These dark surfaces now absorb 90 percent of the sun's radiation! So instead of most of this energy being reflected, most of it is now absorbed and the increased heat further works to melt more snow or ice. This is an "amplification" or feedback effect.

Before we end, let's look at some data. The observations and stories above are intriguing, and may not be fully understood yet in terms of Climate Change, but data is hard to ignore. A chart "Arctic Sea Ice Extent" from page 39 of the U.S. government report "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States," issued in June 2009, presents some significant findings. The early data from 1900 to 1953 (shaded) are of less confidence, but satellite measurements since 1978 are considered accurate. Note that the units are "million square miles." With about 1 million square miles of less ice, it is clear: the Arctic is melting.

The scientific career of Raymond N. Johnson, Ph.D., spanned 30 years in research and development as an organic/analytical chemist; he is currently founder and director of the Institute of Climate Studies USA (www.ICSUSA.org). Climate Science is published the first Sunday of every month.