By Doug O'Harra
Anchorage Daily News
February 24, 2005
Last year Alaskans sweated through the warmest May, June, July and August of the century, with average temperatures almost 5 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Such heat was largely driven by the warmest ocean temperatures ever measured in the Northern Hemisphere, matched globally by the fourth-warmest year on record.
Large swaths of the state saw sparse rainfall as a result but still got zapped thousands of times by lightning. That led to Alaska's worst fire season ever, with an estimated 6.5 million acres burned.
Throw in melting glaciers, disintegrating permafrost, diminishing sea ice, coastal erosion, changes in vegetation and wildlife, insect infestations, rising sea level, and increasing exposure to contaminants brought on air and sea currents, and Alaskans know firsthand about the potential damage and cost caused by the shifting climate.
"Climate is really warming now, and you Alaskans know that," said Robert Corell, chair of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment for the international Arctic Council. "Because this really is the bellwether, the canary in the mine: What we see over the next decade here and in the Arctic, the rest of the world will see in the next 25 years."
Corell, a senior fellow with the American Meteorological Society, brought his climate-change message to Anchorage this month, giving speeches, meeting with editors and students and business leaders, and participating in panel discussions at the Alaska Forum on the Environment.
His focus was an international study that outlined the devastating impact of warming climate and melting ice across the North. Commissioned by the Arctic Council, the study was the work of 300 scientists from 18 countries, with Corell serving as one of the lead coordinators.
Corell said the detailed 1,200-page scientific version of the report is almost finished and will be released in a few months.
Dozens of the 150 sessions at the environment forum, including several involving Corell, touched on the impact of these warming temperatures on northern regions, as well as a related problem of contaminants reaching the Arctic through air and water currents, then entering the food chain.
Excessive greenhouse gas emissions by the United States _ blamed by many scientists as the major factor in global warming _ directly threaten the human rights of Arctic residents, said Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, during one discussion.
"The Arctic is the globe's barometer, and we are the planet's early warning system," she said. "I always say if you protect the Arctic, you protect the planet."
One unexpected consequence of Alaska's warm summer interfered directly with summer food gathering in the Interior, said another member of the panel, Craig Fleener, with the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments. Parts of the Yukon Flats region saw only about a half-inch of rain - and that caused rivers to fall to levels where they could not be navigated.
"The problem was that we could not get to places that we needed to go," Fleener said.
The shifting climate is changing the ecosystem faster than plants and animals can respond - stressing trees in Alaska's Interior, triggering insect outbreaks like the spruce bark beetle in south-central Alaska, and threatening to push Arctic species like the polar bear toward extinction, climate scientists have warned.
It is also bringing unwanted immigrants. West Nile virus, for instance, first showed up in the Lower 48 in 1999 but has since spread north into Canada along the same track as the most dramatic summer warming, Corell said.
Alaskans should not be surprised to see birds carrying the disease as soon as this summer, he said during a speech at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
"Things are happening really fast compared to anything we've seen in the ecosystem for a really long time, maybe 65 million years, since the last major extinction," he said.
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