Obama’s Journey: Top 10 signs of Extreme Climate Change in Alaska and why it Should Scare Us

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

American corporate news has not devoted the hours to President Obama’s trip to Alaska that it deserves, focusing on the GOP clown car back in the lower 48 instead. I did a Lexis Nexis search under Arctic Summit (yes, there was one, which Obama attended) in “Broadcast News Transcripts” and I got, I swear eleven hits beginning last Sunday.

I visited Alaska for a conference a few years ago, and drove down with a friend to see the Portage Glacier. It had begun moving in 1850 and had left behind a lake as it headed toward a nearby mountain range. For a historian of modern climate change, the 1850 date is significant. That is when we typically mark the end of the “Little Ice Age” of the late medieval and early modern period, roughly 1350-1850. We came out of this period of slightly increased glaciation in Europe because early forms of industrialization involved the burning of a great deal of wood and then coal in the 18th century, so that by 1850 we had put a bit more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And at that point, the Portage Glacier began melting, leaving a lake behind it over time. The lake’s birth date was 1850, the year many consider the beginning of a new geological era, the Anthropocene that succeeded the Holocene. The Anthropocene is the era in which the earth’s climate is dictated for the first time by human beings, not by volcanoes, sunspots, shape of the earth’s orbit and other astronomical phenomena, and bacteria.

The Portage Glacier is only one of many natural features now changing in Alaska. The reason Obama went to the state is that it is at the forefront of the climate change crisis. Here are the climate problems it is facing according to the Environmental Protection Agency:

1. The rate of warming in Alaska during the past 50 years has been twice as much as in the lower 48! Winters are 6.3°F warmer now than in 1965 when the Beatles’ “Yesterday” spent 4 weeks at the top of the charts. Summers are also warmer but less dramatically so, with a 3.4°F increase.

2. The future is even more striking. Average annual temperatures could increase again by as much as 4°F – 7°F by 2050!

3. Alaska’s forests are at risk from drought, wildfire and insect attacks. Already, Alaska’s spruce forest has been extensively reduced because of fire and insects. The EPA warns, “By mid-century, the average area burned by wildfire each year is likely to double.” Also, many evergreen trees are leaning over because the soil is warming and loosening, producing “drunken forests.”

4. The permafrost is melting. The EPA explains, “Permafrost is the frozen ground located one to two feet below the surface in cold regions.” When the permafrost melts, your house sinks. About 100,000 of the 736,000 Alaskans live in areas where their dwellings will be harmed by permafrost degradation.

5. When permafrost thaws and then freezes again (as opposed to staying frozen) it damages the landing strips, roads and rail lines built atop it. Many roads won’t take vehicle traffic except when the permafrost is frozen solid, since otherwise they buckle. The EPA says, “In the past 30 years, the number of days when travel is allowed on the tundra has decreased from 200 days to 100 days per year.” What? You can only travel on those roads a third of the year now? And this change since 1965?

6. Building infrastructure on melting permafrost will increase costs by 10% or more.

7. Coastal erosion is a big problem, what with rising seas and declining (and poorly named) perennial sea ice. On the state’s northwestern coast, some shorelines are receding at rates “averaging tens of feet per year.” In many native Alaskan villages up there, houses have collapsed into the sea and some villages have already had to relocate.

8. Native Alaskans are facing something like the official definition of genocide, only at the hands of oil, gas and coal instead of at the hands of an invading army. Climate change is reducing habitats for fish and for caribou, seals, walruses and polar bears, which are declining in population. Native Alaskans hunt this game and engage in fishing, but their livelihood is at extreme risk going forward.

9. As an example of threats to game, Alaskan caribou like to eat lichen, which grows on permafrost. As the permafrost melts, the lichen is being replaced by shrubs, which the caribou can’t eat. Wolves, bears and native Alaskans in turn depend on hunting caribou.

10. Alaska’s lakes are shrinking because the permafrost is thawing and more water is evaporating at the higher temperatures, reducing breeding grounds for birds that summer at them. Again, those birds and the declining fish stocks in the lakes are food for native Alaskans, food that is becoming scarcer.

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Related video:

White House: “President Obama at the Signpost of Climate Change”

11 Responses

  1. Obama attended an Artic Summit? When was it?

    America and the World needs a news, information revolution.

    The 99% of Americans should boycott all the corporate news – TV, radio and paper. Without an audience to take in their useless news, commercials and ads the corporate news would lose billions of dollars for ads/commercials and go bankrupt.

    Such a boycott would also kill or seriously limit the useless and stupid political ads and give impetus for independent news outlets to start presenting real truthful news and information.

    I became totally fed up with the “American corporate news” over three decade ago – I stopped listening, reading and watching their crap. PBS is not much better.

    PBS = Public Bull S–t that brainwashes and keeps Americans unconscious and uninformed so that they can be easily controlled.
    FDA = Federal Death Administration that test and approves various forms of treatments for symptoms without treating the real cause or problem.

    Perhaps the American people would approve an Office of Truth, Honesty and Full Disclosure with Clarity and Brevity which would keep Americans informed about actions that could, will or may curtail or reduce the freedoms that are guaranteed by the US Constitution or that are taken for granted.

    How the hell did the Supreme Court approve unlimited donations that would reach the politicians? With words that confuse the issue and other excuses.

    • Perhaps the U.S. “newz” media could stop substituting facts for faith and understand that “knowing” and “believing” are not the same and, in fact, are the polar opposites.

      Corporate-controlled media is always beseeching viewers to “believe” when we should “know.” And, if facts are necessary, we get “trust us” and a line of well-written bovine droppings from nicely attired, excessively made-up, semi-attractive display readers and carefully prompted “experts.”

      Unfortunately, it will take a lot more than a boycott to bring about what is really needed.

  2. Ironically, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (which brings the oil that increases global temperature as it is burned) is threatened by the thawing of permafrost as the pipeline is much more likely to buckle as the soil sinks and then burst.

    Here’s a link to a detailed article about the great expense of maintaining oil/gas pipelines: link to dnvusa.com

  3. All true. Of course, it’s much worse than this: since, as you rightly point out, the Arctic warms faster than the rest of the planet, this melts the permafrost. But the consequences of melting permafrost go FAR beyond sinking houses and damaged roads. It threatens MASSIVE release of GHG, both carbon and–worse yet–methane. See, e.g.,
    link to nasa.gov

  4. Recently, I have been wondering if global warming could trigger the yellowstone caldera. This supervolcano erupts about every 600,000 years and the last event was 650,000 years ago. In any given year, the chance of an eruption is probably small, but what if global warming, which may be causing seismic events, is placing extra stress on the caldera? How stable is the caldera? An eruption would bury everything within 3000 miles under volcanic ash. North America would become Pompeii writ large.

  5. I didn’t know about the drunken trees. That’s new to me. And I’m still learning about the land erosion along the coast in Alaska. Land erosion along the west coast of the United States has been more noticeable in the last twenty to thirty years.

    One new issue is catching attention in the Arctic. As the Arctic melts in the summer and the areas of open water get bigger and last longer, the chance of truly damaging storms increases. Why? Because waves now have room to build and they’re powerful enough to destroy more ice. This is very dangerous for ships and oil platforms.

    I oppose the Shell Oil platform but I understand the difficult politics and issues Obama has to deal with, including Russia. But there is a real risk of increasing the problems of global warming.

    Alaska demonstrates a growing global truth that hasn’t been articulated yet and that different scientists have expressed roughly in different ways. It’s this: the science of global warming is sound but we can’t truly know where we are if CO2 emissions keep increasing, and the potential for future problems keep increasing. A good analogy is a forest fire. In the first few hours, no scientist can tell you how destructive that fire is going to be. It depends on many factors, including how fast that fire is brought under control. We’re not moving nearly fast enough. More important, as long as CO2 emissions continue to rise, we truly don’t know where we are.

  6. One of the many horrific effects of human-induced climate change is sudden and unexpected mass deaths like 120,000 Ice Age saiga antelope dying within a few months in remote locations such as Kazakhstan.

    link to phys.org

    So, let’s keep those pet coke and coal-fired facilities burning red hot, destroy more jungles and forests so WE CAN BE NEXT!

    YEEHAW!

  7. Our country spent the last decade or so destroying a nation of 30 million, with little detectable remorse for its suffering population. Is it possible for us to concern ourselves with predicted climate change problems in a remote state of 730,000 residents including 14,000 natives? Yes it is possible, as long as there is no call for resources to to help them, i.e. no burden placed on us in the lower 48.

    Considering Obama’s recent approval for Royal Dutch Shell to do exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea, Alaska is the perfect location for a presidential much-a-do-about-nothing. Having set the stage for thousands of new Chukchi oil related jobs, an much state revenue, I’m sure that carbon easily trumps (dictionary meaning, not proper name) harm to native habitat and indigenous species.

    And let’s not forget Obama’s realpolitik proposal to increase our icebreaker fleet so Russia’s big icebreaker fleet won’t bully us around in the icebreaking cold war (pun intended).

    • Man-made global climate collapse isn’t “about Obama.”

      Since the multinational fossil fuel industry realized it’s unfortunate necessity well over a century ago, our entire planet has been continuously bullied by greed, war and manipulation until our truly frightening future has been revealed.

      If the passion spewed against those with names easy to remember was applied to immediately finding a better ways to boil water, generate electron flow, make engines of transport much more efficient and stop killing, burning and consuming every other living thing then some progress can be made.

      Otherwise, we are all sad little crickets chirping in a vacant brown field that was once our beautiful garden.

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