Obama finds perfect climate change victim in Alaska

President Obama couldn't have picked a better place to make his case for acting on climate change.

The state of Alaska, where the president started a three-day trip Monday, has had one of its worst wildfire seasons in memory, and its glaciers - like so many around the world - are melting. It also has experienced record warming over the past several years, which has caused the permafrost that lies beneath many roads and buildings across the state to begin thawing.

Much of this has been blamed on global warming, which has caused land and sea temperatures to rise as the burning of fossil fuels increases the amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

"While climate change is important to all, it is taking Alaska from a frozen to a thawed condition, causing structural changes and significant damage to our communities," Larry Hinzman, the interim vice chancellor for research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told CBS News. "We must deal with these consequences, and we need the assistance of our countrymen to take on these challenges."

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Researchers deploy a hydrophone into Icy Bay, Alaska. Scientists used the underwater microphones to listen and record the average noise levels in three bays in Alaska and Antarctica whose fjords have glaciers that flow into the ocean. They found that the noisiest places in the ocean are where glaciers in fjords melt into the saltwater.
Jeffrey Nystuen

Wildfires

The wildfires have drawn the most attention of late, with blazes in Alaska and Canada spreading smoke for hundreds of miles. Much like the fires in California and Washington state, the ones in Alaska have been blamed on poor winter precipitation and dry conditions throughout the spring.

Many of the fires have occurred in sparsely populated rural areas. By the end of July, 4.8 million of the 5.5 million acres burned this season were in Alaska.

The fires are burning forests that have already been weakened over the past decade by bark beetle outbreaks that have killed many trees. The insects are taking advantage of warming conditions that have allowed them to survive year-round.

"There have been a lot of changes since I started working there especially in terms of fire disturbance," said Scott Goetz, the deputy director at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, who has worked 20 years in the region and is leading NASA's multi-year campaign to investigate ecological impacts of changing climate in Alaska and northwestern Canada.

"Most of the big fire years have happened in the past decade," he said. "This year was another big fire year ... The big thing with fires are the severity. It is not only the trees that burn but the soil, the organic soil or peat lands."

As a result of the fires, Goetz said there have been wholesale changes in the ecosystem.

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The setting sun is partially obscured by smoke from an out of control wildfire on the Parks Highway near Willow, Alaska, in this picture courtesy of Mat-Su Borough taken in June.
REUTERS

"It increases permafrost degradation. It changes the vegetation that comes back and persists for decades," he said. "A lot of the forests in western Canada are evergreen conifer. Those are killed off, the soil is burned off, and the forests that come back after a severe fire [are] more of a deciduous forest. That can persist for decades, so that changes everything - the carbon cycle, the nutrient cycling, and the energy feedback to the atmosphere. It sets the system on a whole new course."

Melting glaciers

Glaciers, too, have suffered due to warming conditions and are proving to be a key contributor to sea level rise.

A June study in the Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, found Alaska's glaciers have sent 75 gigatons (billions of tons) of water into the ocean every year for the past 19 years and helped increase sea levels by two-tenths of a millimeter per year.

Taken over seven years, this volume of melting would cover the entire state of Alaska in a foot of water.

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A sequence of images shows changes in Alaska's Columbia Glacier, 1986 to 2014.
NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY AND U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

Just last week, NASA concluded that overall sea level rise could be worse than previously thought since the climate models don't fully account for the melting of glaciers and ice sheets around the world. Two-thirds of sea level rise that is occurring is due to these melting glaciers.

"The Alaskan glaciers have been degrading for the last couple of decades. We have seen a huge amount of loss," Hinzman said.

"The sea level rise we have observed in the last 20 years, most of that has come water sourced from Alaskan glaciers," he said. "Our glaciers are getting hammered. The glaciers are important for many of our communities. They are a water source and supply of water for our fisheries."

Rising seas are already a reality in Alaska, where Hinzman pointed out that a federal government survey concluded that 31 native communities will have to be moved and that 12 of those are already making plans to relocate.

Thawing permafrost

Moving villages may be one of the largest logistical challenges the state faces, but maybe not the most immediate. Across the state, the thawing of permafrost is threatening infrastructure and setting off slow-moving landsides, Hinzman said.

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A home destroyed by beach erosion tips over in the Alaskan village of Shishmaref. The village, home of Inupiat Eskimos, is located some 600 miles (965kms) northwest of Anchorage but just 110 miles (177kms) from the east coast of Russia. Shishmaref, on an island reachable only by air and inhabited for 4,000 years, is facing evacuation because of global warming.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

"That is a big deal. That really is a big deal. These are huge amounts, mass flows of earthen debris that are coming down the hillsides," Hinzman said. "They are encroaching on road and bridges. There is no way to stop them. If we get one of those landslides that hit a bridge, it would be a catastrophe."

And it's not only infrastructure. Thawing permafrost has implications for the climate.

"The big concern with permafrost is that it can release a tremendous amount of carbon into the atmosphere," Goetz said, noting there is twice the amount of carbon in permafrost in Alaska and other Arctic regions than in the atmosphere.

"There has been tens of thousands of years of carbon stored in permafrost and then we have, for example, a big fire or you have warmer temperatures or both," he said. "The permafrost melts, degrades and then microbial action happens and that is what releases CO2 and methane into the atmosphere."

Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center who has been advising State Department officials on the problem, went further, saying this "potentially unstoppable and self-reinforcing cycle could constitute a calamitous tipping point."

"The release of greenhouse gases resulting from thawing Arctic permafrost could have catastrophic global consequences," Holmes said.

"The United States must lead a large-scale effort to find the tipping point - at what level of warming will the cycle of warming and permafrost thawing become impossible to stop," Holmes said. "The real and imminent threat posed by permafrost thawing must be communicated clearly and broadly to the general public and the policy community."

Economic opportunities

Despite all these challenges, University of Alaska Fairbanks' Mike Sfraga said there could be economic opportunity from the melting ice - including the opening of shipping lanes in the Bering Strait and the building of ports. Already, he said the state has seen an influx of investors from as far away as Singapore interested in potential new opportunities in mining and oil and gas drilling in areas once inaccessible due to ice cover.

"If done well, you can mitigate impacts on the environment while providing economic development for communities that currently do not have viable economic engines to sustain themselves in the future," he said.

But those economic opportunities have put Obama in a tough spot.

While he will he is using his trip to Alaska to highlight the impacts of climate change, he is less likely to focus on his recent decision to allow Shell to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean.

In this photo taken in April, a group of kayakers rafted together work to pull up a protest sign as they practice for an upcoming demonstration against Arctic oil drilling, in Elliott Bay in view of downtown Seattle. Royal Dutch Shell wants to park two massive Arctic oil drilling rigs in Seattle's waterfront.
AP

The drilling approval has angered environmentalists, some of whom claim the move contradicts Obama's calls for action to combat climate change. But on the other side are Exxon and supporters of the oil and gas industry who are using Obama's trip to call for him to open more areas for drilling onshore and offshore - a call that takes on greater urgency as the state feels the economic fallout from low oil prices.

Scientists, for the most part, have steered clear of drilling controversy. Rather, they are just happy to see Obama finally giving attention to the region and climate issues that have long has been ignored by most Americans.

Sfraga said they are hoping Obama's visit prompts Americans in the rest of the nation to consider the ways they "think about the Arctic and conduct business in the Arctic." And they also hope it will lead to the gathering of more data that could lead to better policies to help the state navigate its changing reality.

"Although there is discussion out there, nothing puts a spotlight on it better and makes it more important than having the president of the United States speak to those various issues," Sfraga said.

  • Michael Casey

    Michael Casey covers the environment, science and technology for CBSNews.com