Alaska Melting

Alaska Melting

Scientists test the integrity of a melt pond on sea ice in the Chukchi Sea, Alaska, July 2010 (NASA)

The first European explorer to reach Alaska, Vitus Bering of Russia in 1741, and the European and American explorers who followed him assumed the rugged coastline they encountered was the unchanging, eternal face of Alaska. The explorers’ published reports and newspaper coverage accompanying the American purchase of Alaska in 1867 fixed the state’s image in popular culture for generations.

Uncle Sam’s newest possession was a remote storehouse of natural resources, especially fur and fish, and home to Eskimos living in igloos. The Eskimos, who routinely mushed sled dogs across frozen wastes amidst howling blizzards, shared the north with wolves, whales, walruses, and polar bears. The polar bears in artists’ sketches came in only one size—extra large. The newspapers repeatedly emphasized Alaska was cold. Colder than any place on earth.

The international gold rush that began in the Klondike in 1897 and spread from Canada into interior Alaska reinforced the cold as the defining characteristic of the territory. On Christmas day 1899, Will Ballou, a greenhorn seeking his fortune, wrote to his mother in New Fane, Vermont from his cabin in the mining camp of Rampart, near the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers. “We are having cold weather—65 below this morning. It has been below 50 for the past week and a half.”

But in Alaska today, the cold has become less formidable than in Ballou’s day. Climate change has reduced its presence and its power.

Alaska is frequently at the center of national and international climate change discussions. It is the only U.S. state that lies partially in the Arctic, where so much global climate change has been recorded. It is the only state with indigenous people who live in the Arctic and who harvest fish and game from Arctic waters and lands. It is the only state with thousands of square miles of permafrost—permanently frozen dirt mixed with ice under the ground cover that on the arctic coastal plain can extend 2,000 feet below the surface. In the twenty-first century, permafrost is losing its permanence to warm weather and becoming soft or soggy, inimical to construction and transportation.

There is a consensus among scientists that Alaska’s climate is warming, in some parts of the state dramatically. Gerd Wendler of the Arctic Climate Research Center in Fairbanks told a reporter he was astonished to find that average October temperatures in the North Slope city of Barrow rose 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit between 1979 and 2012. “I think I have never, anywhere, seen such a large increase in temperature over such a short period,” Wendler said. There is also a consensus that climate change is anthropogenically driven by greenhouse gases, especially from fossil fuels, but researchers believe other forces are involved as well—atmospheric circulation (the large-scale movement of air) for one.

Alaska’s 735,000 residents—one-sixth of them indigenous people—can see the change for themselves.

Many Alaskans have seen changes in the Portage Glacier, near Anchorage, or the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. Both glaciers have experienced what the United States Geological Survey characterizes as “accelerated retreats” as their terminus has receded. Some Alaskans and thousands of tourists who travel to the gigantic Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound are amazed to learn the Columbia has retreated twelve miles since 1980.

Still other Alaskans have seen the retreat of sea ice along the western and northern coast, illustrated shockingly in 2014 by photographs and a video of 30,000 to 35,000 walruses that came ashore near Point Lay because they had inadequate ice on which to haul out from the water. The decline of sea ice has led to concern about the future of the walrus and the polar bear, which use ice floes as platforms to search the sea for prey.

A massive National Science Foundation poll of more than 1,000 Alaskans in 2006 found that 81 percent said global warming is occurring, and 55 percent believed it is caused by human activity, including the use of fossil fuels. More recent polls confirm a large majority of Alaskans are convinced climate change is a reality.

The late Oscar Kawagley, a western-Alaska Yup’ik who taught about his culture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, wrote “The cold defines my place. . . . The cold made my language, my worldview, my culture and technology. Now, the cold is waning at a very fast rate and, as a result, it is changing the landscape. The changing landscape, in turn, is confusing the mindscape of . . . indigenous people.”

In April 2009, representatives of indigenous people across the world met in Anchorage at a global summit on climate change. In what they called the Anchorage Declaration, the participants approved a statement expressing their solidarity in the face of climate change and insisted they “must be fully recognized and respected in all decision-making processes and activities related to climate change.” The declaration’s call for action outlined the active role indigenous people should have in crafting the responses of governments and international organizations to climate change.

A number of Alaska Native organizations have been active in assuring the call to action is properly met. The Alaska Native Science Commission located in Anchorage is one. Under the leadership of Executive Director Patricia Cochran, an Inupiat Eskimo from Nome, the commission provides a link between professional scientists and Alaska Native communities that offer what Cochran calls “citizen science.”

“Most of my work is climate related now,” Cochran said to me in an interview. “Citizen science, eyes on the ground, is important, necessary. We have been talking about climate change in our community for forty years—people noticing changes in ice, changes in plant life.” Today, Cochran says, scientists and Alaska Natives are sharing knowledge. In a professional paper published in 2013, Cochran and several co-authors wrote “A western science emphasis on facts and an indigenous emphasis on relationships to spiritual and biophysical components indicate important but distinct contributions that each knowledge system can make.”

Another example of citizens cooperating with science (and government) is the Local Environmental Observer (Network) or LEO program, “an organization of tribal professionals in Alaska and Canada who share information about environmental events where they live, post observations on public (web) maps, and coordinate with technical experts to identify appropriate actions.” LEO was created by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, headquartered in Anchorage. Since the programs began in 2012, more than 200 observers in a hundred communities in Alaska and western Canada have contributed to a database on topics such as extreme weather, ice changes, thawing permafrost, erosion, and changes in the health and behavior of wildlife, fish, and birds.

Mike Brubaker, who led development of LEO for the consortium, explained to me that they are looking at environmental changes in Alaska through a public health lens, and focusing on issues such as changes to the water supply and food scarcity. Climate change presents a long-term, unprecedented challenge to Alaska Natives, Brubaker concluded. “What happens when the climate prevents you from realizing your identity?”

The State of Alaska acknowledges climate change is occurring and says so on web postings and in numerous state studies, and the state has responded vigorously to climate change emergencies in several remote, off-road villages difficult to reach even by airplane. Selawik is one. This west-coast village with a population of about 850 has been called the “Venice of Northwest Alaska,” a bit of hyperbole used to describe the consequences of melting and settling that has left the streets watery in summer. “Stairs to some houses no longer reach the ground,” wrote Alex DeMarban of Alaska Dispatch News. “Some homes tilt so much toilet bowls can’t fill with water for flushing.” Selawik’s water supply became murky and silty from erosion. The state responded by providing the community with an expensive water filtration system.

Newtok, like Selawik in western Alaska but further south, is another village receiving government and media attention. Reporters from the New York Times, the Guardian, and NPR have all been to see the first Alaskan village forced to relocate because of climate change–induced coastal erosion and melting permafrost. The relocation to a site nine miles away was approved by local voters and planned by government professionals. Relocation of the over 300 residents is in an early stage, and the community faces years more work and costs that could reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars without a clear funding source.

In Selawik and in Newtok, government engineers, technicians, and administrators confronted with climate change have looked for solutions. Elected officials—the Congressional delegation, governors, members of the Legislature—have demonstrated a similar orientation. But most of these elected officials have been hostile to the argument that human activity, especially the emission of greenhouse gases by fossil fuels, has contributed to warming.

Walrus cows resting on sea ice south of Nunivak Island, Alaska, while nursing their calves
(USFWS/Brad Benter via Flickr)

Members of the Congressional delegation, all Republicans, are unwilling to admit, no matter how much evidence accumulates on their desks, that the oil industry—which provides 85 percent of the state budget and creates thousands of Alaskan jobs—has played a role in the environmental changes affecting the state.

After forty-two years as Alaska’s sole House member, Don Young, eighty-two, remains steadfastly resistant to evidence that shows human activity has contributed to climate change. He is also openly contemptuous of environmentalists, denouncing them as a “self-centered bunch, the waffle-stomping, Harvard-graduating, intellectual idiots.”

Lisa Murkowski, a member of the Senate since 2002 and now chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, has been less obstreperous and more open to examining the impact of climate change on humans, but she is nonetheless resistant to blaming the change on the use of fossil fuels. On election night 2014, she told supporters climate change is “something that we must address.” She continued, “The emissions that are being put in the air by that volcano are a thousand years’ worth of emissions that would come from all of the vehicles, all of the manufacturing in Europe”—a contention widely rejected by climate scientists. When Murkowski learned in early 2015 that President Obama planned to visit Alaska, she derisively suggested he should not use his trip simply to talk about climate change.

Freshman Dan Sullivan, who defeated Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in 2014, voted for a Senate amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill in January 2015 (as did Murkowski) that said climate change is real. The measure passed ninety-eight to one. But on a subsequent amendment citing “human activity” as a climate-change factor, Sullivan voted no while Murkowski voted yes. For Sullivan, “the verdict is still out on the human contribution to climate change.”

Former governor Sarah Palin, the face of Alaska to many Americans, has used her platform as a celebrity politician to dismiss the “con job” of manmade climate change. As governor, Palin was far less rhetorically combative and proved willing to address the climate concerns her constituents reported. She appointed a Climate Change Subcabinet to monitor change and authorized at least $13 million for erosion control in six indigenous communities.

Under Palin’s successor, Republican Sean Parnell, the subcabinet became “dormant,” the Huffington Post explained in 2013. Parnell, a former oil industry lobbyist, primarily devoted his years as chief executive to reducing the oil industry’s taxes, claiming lower taxes would produce more drilling and therefore more jobs. The tax bill he signed was so generous to the industry it became colloquially known to Democrats as “the giveaway.”

Independent Bill Walker, who narrowly defeated Parnell in November 2014 in part because of the “giveaway,” has called Alaska the “ground zero of climate change” and argued that human activity is a major factor. But during his first year in office, Walker has been preoccupied with a budget shortage of $3 billion provoked more by lower oil prices than by lower oil taxes. Like virtually every other major Alaskan elected official of the last thirty years, Walker has called for expanded oil drilling, including drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which remains off-limits to oil companies. He also supports drilling in the Arctic Ocean and Chukchi Sea, which not only environmental groups but also many Alaska Natives (especially those on the North Slope) oppose.

The Alaska legislature, dominated by Republicans for more than two decades, has become resistant to virtually any proposal advanced by environmental groups. Pam Brodie, chair of the Sierra Club Alaska, notes, “There are states where the Legislature pays a lot of attention to what the Sierra Club says. This is not one of them.” John Schoen, a wildlife ecologist who was director of Audubon Alaska for two years and the organization’s chief scientist for twelve years, says Audubon’s relationship with the legislature ranges from “prickly to non-existent.” From the narrow perspective of Alaska lawmakers, environmentalists are meddling outsiders bent on creating new parks and refuges and imposing burdensome regulations on resource-extraction industries.

During the 2015 legislative session in Juneau, the Legislature became embroiled in a rhetorical battle with another species of outsiders—elected officials in Washington state. A number of these officials, including Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, urged the Department of the Interior not to offer additional leases for offshore Arctic drilling operations, citing the role of fossil fuels in climate change. In response, Alaska lawmakers took to the floor to denounce Evergreen state leaders, and in an eighty-five-line resolution, the Senate told them to mind their own business. The resolution was unanimously passed by the twenty-member Senate. Supporting the measure, Senator Cathy Giessel of Anchorage, a Republican, said “If Washington state is truly concerned with carbon dioxide emissions and environmental impacts in our nation then it ought to look within its own borders and consider closing down their (sic) Boeing aircraft production facility.” Giessel claimed that aircraft rolling off the Boeing assembly line “discharge more than 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide in their lifetimes.” The House passed the measure twenty-nine to eleven after Representative Bob Herron of Bethel derided Washington leaders. “It must be nice to eat cheese and sip wine in Olympia while they talk about the Arctic,” Herron purred.

The eleven votes against the resolution indicate Alaska has few legislators willing to entertain concerns about the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Midway through the 2015 session, Anchorage representatives Geran Tarr and Andy Josephson, Democrats, introduced a resolution urging Gov. Walker to convene a Climate Change Task Force. Numerous clauses summarized the climate change threat. The measure never received a hearing.

In early June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that May 2015 was the warmest May in ninety-one years of record-keeping in Alaska. A warm Alaska is a dry Alaska. Scientists who study climate change are not surprised when forest fires accompany higher temperatures. Rick Thoman, a climate scientist with the National Weather Service, pointed out that since 1988, the state has had eleven fires that have burned more than a million acres, nearly twice the rate of fires from 1940 to 1987. The number of large fires is increasing in warmer, drier Alaska, and the fire season is growing longer. As Alaska warms, summer skies fill with smoke, and Alaskans have additional reason for anxiety about the future. Meanwhile, their elected leaders continue to ignore the role of fossil fuels in climate change and press for additional oil and gas development in the Arctic.


Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch columnist. He has written about Alaskan issues for forty years.

American Studies Now | UC Press [Advertisement]