Witnessing Climate Change Up Close

August 9, 2021
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

A visit to Alaska triggers different perspectives on a subject I’ve researched for decades

Picture of South Sawyer Glacier, Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska taken by the author, July 21, 2021
Picture of South Sawyer Glacier, Tracy Arm Fjord, Alaska taken by the author, July 21, 2021

Every week brings news of some new climate disaster. Recent extreme events have included record heat in the Pacific Northwest, wildfires across the west, and deadly floods in China and Germany. Reporting on each includes dramatic pictures and mortality data. Human nature being what it is, perhaps growing public awareness that we are all at risk from such events will finally bring about the scale and scope of international actions needed. (Others argue it mainly leads to despair. ) It is almost impossible to come to terms with the full scope and magnitude of what is at stake and how all life on earth may be affected, even though I have worked on climate issues for decades. Reality hit home on a recent trip to Alaska.

First stop was Denali National Park, the six-million-acre expanse of wilderness that encompasses Mt. Denali (officially Mt. McKinley until 2015). There, we witnessed the final stages of a “surge”, or forward advance, by the Muldrow Glacier. For several months this year, the glacier moved up to 100 feet per day — versus a normal rate of several inches. While a dramatic event of great interest, the role of climate change remains debated by scientists — a contrast with the status of the State’s estimated 27,000 glaciers, almost all retreating. While far south of the Northwest Passage, we also heard reference to the expectation of shorter shipping routes through an ice-free Arctic with unknown impacts on marine ecosystems and Indigenous communities.

In Denali, we also learned how warming temperatures had forced changes in the annual Iditarod sled dog race. In 2015 and 2017, the race had to be substantially rerouted due to lack of snow. The challenge of building on permafrost was another frequent topic. Due to warmer temperatures, roads built on gravel, sometimes trucked considerable distances, must be repaired with increasing frequency. In visits to several museums, we learned of native villages forced to relocate from traditional homelands due to retreat of Arctic ice and coastal erosion. These Indigenous peoples are considered highly vulnerable to climate change as their food supply and cultures are closely intertwined with living with ice and cold.

Boating along the southeast coast of Alaska from Juneau to Sitka, the big news is a dramatic decline in the commercial salmon catch with warming oceans a contributing factor. At a visit to a fish hatchery, experts told us that the changing fish population allows them to produce only the lowest value salmon, primarily used for pet food, in the local waters. While hiking in the Tsongas National Forest, we saw large numbers of dead trees, yellow cedar, a species known for its resilience and resistance to decay and thus prized by native tribes but now endangered. Research identified the cause as spring freezing ironically caused by warming temperatures and the lack of insulating snow cover over the tree’s shallow roots, a phenomenon going back more than a century but likely to worsen with climate change.

On a rugged trail maintained by the Forest Service, a naturalist pointed out dozens of bird species in the process of beginning their end-of-summer migration. Many of them are already changing their range due to changing climate conditions. Finally, we also heard mention of threats to coastal shellfish due to ocean warming and acidification, with significant economic and ecological consequences. Shellfish are a prized food for Alaskan brown bears, as we witnessed several times along shorelines.

Spend a little time in Alaska and visitors are also likely to be struck by the dichotomy between the state’s environmental vulnerability and dependence on oil production, the source of nearly 85 percent of the state budget. Rather than pay taxes, every resident that has lived within the state for a full calendar year receives an annual dividend payment, in 2020 $992 and in previous years, more than $2000. Yet an exhibit recounting the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than 30 years ago is still prominently displayed in the State Museum in Juneau, the state capitol, including t-shirts and other memorabilia from the protests that followed.

An authoritative report, the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment, notes Alaska is “on the front lines of climate change and among the fastest warming regions on Earth.” Some impacts highlighted include longer sea ice-free seasons, ocean acidification, higher ground temperatures leading to melting of permafrost, and coastal erosion. The melting permafrost is not only a danger to surface structures but a potential source of enormous emissions of methane gases trapped below ground, potentially equal or greater than all those from human activities worldwide. But again, the disaggregated, sector-by-sector analysis does not even attempt to address the bigger picture. Will Alaska be fundamentally changed by a radical disruption of the climate that has enabled native communities to fish and thrive on coastal cliffs? Will the continued decline of glaciers and the freshwater they release fundamentally change the ecology of the state?

In the arcane world of climate policy, discussion is increasingly about “adaptation” — relocating coastal villages (or as climate policymakers call it, “retreat”), building sea walls, planting trees and “greening” rooftops to cool cities. In other parts of the U.S., outdoor work on farms and construction, and indoor work in hot locations without air conditioning, are already being restricted due to extreme heat. No doubt the desire for such measures, and economic incentives to develop them, will grow rapidly as temperatures and sea levels rise.

But what my Alaska experience tells me is that there are limits to adaptation. Climate change will redefine how we live, where we live, and the nature that surrounds and sustains us in ways that transcend such disasters. Predicting the scope and full implications of such changes is dependent on human behavior as much as our understanding of the climate system and thus impossible to predict. But I do know that if my daughter makes the same trip when she’s my age 40 years hence, she will experience a very different world — one which we cannot yet fully contemplate.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)

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