Catastrophic climate effects

The view of Big Diomede, Russia from Little Diomede, Alaska shows what should be covered in ice in February. Bering Sea springtime sea ice extent in 2018 was the lowest since record-keeping began in 1850.
Photo courtesy of Little Diomede resident Henry Soolook.


By Mackenzie Sylvester

Climate effects foreseen to hit by mid-century are already present in Alaska. Sea ice surrenders to astounding high winter temperatures. In February 2018, the Arctic experienced temperatures 45 degrees Fahrenheit above normal.

“The Arctic is a preview for what the rest of the world can expect,” said John Walsh, chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Center at UAF.


The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming highlights the risks expected to surface by 2040.

In 2015, 195 nations adopted the Paris agreement that set goals to limit global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) and to keep increases well below 2 degrees Celsius. The atmosphere’s temperature is expected to rise to 1.5 degrees by 2040 if the current rate of warming continues.

The report, with 91 contributing authors and over 6,000 scientific references cited, emphasized the climate change impacts that would be avoided by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. By 2100, coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with a smaller increase, but at 2 degrees Celsius, virtually all coral reefs would be lost, according to the report.


“We are already seeing the consequences of 1 degree Celsius of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes,” panel co-chair Panmao Zhai said in the IPCC press release.

Climate change in Alaska and the Arctic is more dramatic and is happening faster than it is in the rest of the world. While those in the lower 48 still have 30 some years before these “catastrophic” events are expected to surface, Alaska is already enduring the effects.

On average, Arctic temperatures are warming twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Some of Alaska’s permafrost has been frozen for thousands of years. As it thaws, methane and carbon dioxide are released. Increases in the amount of water vapor in Alaska are proportionally larger than they are in other states. Along with carbon dioxide, water vapor is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Open water in the Arctic extends as sea ice melts, leaving more room for evaporation.


Bering Sea ice coverage in the spring of 2018 was at the lowest since record-keeping began in 1850. “It’s the sign of the times,” said Rick Thoman, Alaska climatologist for the National Weather Service. “I bet we won’t have to wait another 160 years to see a year like we had last year for Bering Sea ice.”


Change is evident to many Alaskans. October in Fairbanks entailed of nearing 70 degrees on the first, which usually averages only 30 to 46 degrees. This year has been the latest Fairbanks has gone without at least a trace amount of snow, according to a tweet by the National Weather Service Fairbanks.


Spring begins earlier than it used to. “We have data from about 1929 from the Fairbanks International Airport,” said Christa Mulder, professor of plant ecology at UAF, “on average we are about eight days earlier.” Spring, as Mulder defines it, is a period of five days in a row without freezing.


Summers have become longer than they were in the past. “We can expect it to increase by a month or two by the end of the century,” Walsh said of the lengthening growing season.


“This report just kind of validates what we’re seeing in our part of the world,” Thoman said, unsurprised of the doomsday-esque findings, “Here it’s so obvious.” Areas south of the Arctic, where climate changes are less dramatic or more episodic, may be getting caught up now, Thoman said. By 2040, Alaska will be “much further along than where we are today,” he said.


Animals have been observed to adapt to a changing climate. “As shrubs increase on the North Slope, we see beaver in places that they’ve never been observed before,” Thoman said. When they build their damns, they change the local flow of water. Moose are moving north and westward in search of food, Thoman said.


As the ocean warms, fish are going to migrate to places they have not been seen. Acidity levels in the ocean have been rising which poses threats to marine life. Salmon depend on tiny snail-like creatures called therapods for food. “In a more acidic environment the theropods can’t form their little tiny shells, so they can’t survive,” said Nancy Fresco, a climate change researcher at the International Arctic Research Center at UAF. “They’re an integral part of the food chain when the salmon go out to feed at sea and grow big and fat and come back and spawn in our rivers.


Freezing rain in 2013 caused more than 61,000 reindeer deaths on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Photo courtesy of Bruce C. Forbes in the 2016 Biology Letters.

Reports have shown caribou die-off ensues from mid-winter rain as they struggle to dig into the frozen ground for food. A study in the journal Biology Letters recorded a rain-on-snow event in 2013 causing 61,000 reindeer deaths on Russia’s Yamal Peninsula. Bruce C. Forbes, the study author, found the immediate cause of mass mortality was the solid ice barrier across the ground.

Some of the Arctic mammals that depend on ice are heavily impacted by the warming climate. “The sea ice is not there where it used to be and the animals are reliant on that,” Fresco said.

Walruses can no longer rest on large, spread out ice packs before diving for food. They are forced to haul out on small land-areas on the coastlines in Western Alaska and Eastern Siberia. Walrus stampedes have become prevalent in over-crowded shore haul-outs, endangering the young.

Scientists agree that fossil-fuel burning is a large factor in the increased global temperature and a large-scale transition to renewable energy is an essential step toward a solution.

The challenge in bending the curve on greenhouse gasses is knowing the people of today will likely not live to see their efforts, but there is no time to be wasted, as Thoman said. “At this point there is so much heat built up in the oceans, if civilization collapses and 99 out of every 100 people in the world die tomorrow, it will take centuries for that heat in the ocean to work its way out.” There is no silver bullet. Cultures in history have taken the “longer view.” “It’s not that humans can’t do it, it’s that we don’t do it. We have to, in the Western world, start adapting that attitude.”

Alaskans do not need to wait until 2040 to see the effects of the climate crisis. The rest of the world only needs a look north to see what is coming. As Thoman put it, “The bad stuff is here.”