SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


What happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic
By Ned Rozell


June 13, 2007

Ira Flatow, host of National Public Radio's "Science Friday," sat on a stage at the University of Alaska Fairbanks recently and listened to Alaska scientists talk about thawing permafrost, melting glaciers and sea ice, and shrubs that are replacing tundra plants in the Arctic.

"I get the suspicion from talking to you scientists and other scientists that things are a lot worse than scientists are really willing to admit, just out of fear of alarming the public," Flatow said. "Why sugarcoat it?"

jpg Science Friday

Appearing on National Public Radio's "Science Friday" recently broadcast from Fairbanks were, from left, Matthew Sturm of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory at Fort Wainwright, glaciologist Will Harrison of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, permafrost scientist Torre Jorgensen of ABR, Inc., and ecologist Terry Chapin of UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology.
UAF photo by Todd Paris

It was a watershed moment of the two-hour radio program, broadcast nationally and made possible by UAF Summer Sessions. Flatow was calling out the scientists, who are a thoughtful, cautious bunch by nature.

"It's the sort of challenge he should be throwing at us," said Terry Chapin, an ecologist with UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology.

During the radio show, Chapin said warming-related changes in the north are so widespread and obvious that inaction isn't an option.

"It's like driving the Titanic," Chapin said. "It's slow to turn. But we need to make changes now for our children's future."

Flatow asked Chapin if we've now reached the point where we're just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

"It's really important to take what we know and convert that into action," Chapin said.
"Things are getting desperate enough now that we need to throw away our conservatism and just act."

Chapin thinks a realistic step is to burn less oil and gas and use them more efficiently.

"We know they lead to warming of climate," he said. "It seems like we know enough to think of creative ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Another member of the panel, Matthew Sturm, studies snow and ice at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory at Fort Wainwright. On the broadcast, he explained why the Far North matters to people in places like Austin, Texas. He gave the example of how people there would notice if their air conditioner broke in midsummer. The reduction of ice and snow in the north is doing the same on a global scale, he said.

"Ultimately, what's going to happen here is going to break the air conditioning, the cooling of Earth farther south," Sturm said. "As we change what the Arctic can do in terms of getting rid of Earth's heat, we're going to change what happens everywhere on Earth. It has to follow. What happens here matters to people everywhere."

During the broadcast, Sturm mentioned to Flatow that it's sometimes difficult to separate his opinion from his scientific work. If Flatow would join him for a beer, Sturm said, he could really tell him what he thought. The host pressed on, though, and got stronger wording from Sturm and others.

"Many of us feel that things are coming together in a very worrisome way," Sturm said. "And we certainly don't know how to deal with them, or whether they can be mitigated. Because we tend to deal with the component parts, we get overwhelmed by the complexity of the system, and we know how ignorant we are about putting the whole thing together."

"We continually get surprised by how dramatic these changes can be," said Torre Jorgensen, a guest on the radio show who studies permafrost for the consulting firm ABR, Inc. "We've been seeing them within our lifetime, the last couple of decades. When we drive down the road, or go along the coast, we see really large changes."

Sitting in the audience, a person got the impression that the scientists had seen enough during their many days on Alaska's ice and tundra to reckon that changes are coming down right now, and those changes are compelling them to speak up despite a natural instinct to be conservative.

"It's not a question of whether it's happening," said Chapin, co-director of UAF's Resilience and Adaptation Program for graduate students. "It's what we can do about it."

This column is provided as a public service by the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, in cooperation with the UAF research community.
Ned Rozell [] is a science writer at the institute.

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Ketchikan, Alaska