Reshaping Alaska: The Effects of Climate Change From melting permafrost, to dwindling sea ice, to shrinking glaciers, changes in the Alaskan environment are happening faster than was predicted. Scientists discuss what is taking place in Alaska and the Arctic, and how it is linked to climate change.
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Reshaping Alaska: The Effects of Climate Change

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Reshaping Alaska: The Effects of Climate Change

Reshaping Alaska: The Effects of Climate Change

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Alaska is telling us something. With its melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers, shifting plant communities, Alaska is sending us a message. Climate change is no longer just about charts and computer models of what might happen in the future. Climate change is here in the tundra and the forest and the sea ice.

It's already at work in Alaska and in the Arctic, changing the landscape and the way of life, sometimes much faster than those charts and computer models predicted. So, we've cone to the land of the midnight sun to see firsthand the signs of climate change and to listen to those who are living through it. And we hope to share both of those experiences with you.

This hour, we're going to look at the biological and physical changes taking place in the Arctic and in Alaska. How are they related to climate change and to each other?

And what do the changes taking place in this part of the world have to do with the lower 48? Our venue and point of view is Fairbanks, home of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and home to many of the researchers participating in the fourth International Polar Year.

The IPY, as it's called, is an internationally coordinated research program focused on the Earth's polar region. And it's really two years long. I guess scientists like to stretch those years out to get more work out of them. And it really couldn't have started that in more important time or in a better place than Alaska.

We'll talk with some IPY-sponsored scientists today. And our program is part of Climate Connections, NPR's yearlong collaboration with National Geographic on climate change. We're looking at how people shape climate and the climate shapes how we live.

To the audience at University of Alaska, Fairbanks, I'd like you to step up to one of the microphones to ask a question. If you're at home, in your car or wherever you're listening to Science Friday, or on the Internet, give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. And as always, you can surf over to our Web site at for more information.

Let me introduce my guests. F. Stuart or Terry Chapin is professor of ecology at the Institute of Arctic Biology here at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Welcome to the program.

Professor F. STUART CHAPIN (Ecology, Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks): Thank you.

FLATOW: Torre Jorgenson is a senior scientist at Alaska Biological Research Incorporated in Fairbanks. Thank you for being with us today.

Mr. TORRE JORGENSON (Senior Scientist, ABR Incorporated): Great to be here.

FLATOW: William Harrison is a physicist and glaciologist. He's also professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Thank you for being with us today.

Professor WILLIAM HARRISON (Glaciologist, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska): My pleasure.

FLATOW: Matthew Sturm is a geophysicist with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He also led the 2007 Alaska-Canada Barrenlands Traverse, a 2,000-mile-plus expedition across the Arctic, part of the IPY research effort, and we'll talk to him about that. Thank you for being with us today, Matthew.

Dr. MATTHEW STURM (Geophysicist, U.S. Army Corp of Engineers): Thank you for having us.

FLATOW: Well, let me begin with you. We have a variety of scientists on the panel here to talk about their own various specialties. Everyone here is a specialist in what they do - glaciers, permafrost, sea ice. But climate change is really about what happens to the whole system, isn't it? It just doesn't isolate itself out like the scientists study it?

Dr. STURM: Absolutely. Whether it's here or in the lower 48, climate changes that affects people is all of the things sort of put together. It's the sum of the parts, and it's how the environment in which we live in everyday changes. So, as scientists, we look at the individual parts. But as people, we were affected by the whole.

FLATOW: Let me - let's begin and get into how all that is happening. Terry Chapin, how does a few degrees of temperature change the whole process? What happens in Alaskan Arctic when the temperature starts to rise?

Prof. CHAPIN: Well, when things start to rise, when the temperature starts to rise, one of the main things that happens is that - we're at a temperature here where things change from ice to water for a much larger part of the year. So, for example, the snow melts earlier - the ground, which is very close to the freezing point for an annual average changes from being a solid bottom to our ecosystems to being a porous bottom that can - where the water can drain through.

So this completely changes us from - to a much more sensitive environment in terms of changes in rainfall and temperature.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And how does that all cascade - and you can all jump in if you like to - how did it cascade through into a chain reaction? What happens next? You have more water...

Prof. CHAPIN: Well, for example...

FLATOW: that effect of vegetation, things like that?

Prof. CHAPIN: For example, when you change the amount of water in low-lying areas, then you flood the forests, and you change from forest to some wetland. In the upland areas, things dry out and you're more likely to have droughts, fires, insect outbreaks. When you change the fires, that alters the availability of moose or caribous and habitat for those and therefore, the resources that people have for subsistence.

It changes the rivers from being solid highways in the wintertime that are nice solid ice-covered features to things that are very dangerous to travel on. And in a world where there's very few roads, that makes all the difference in the world.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the sea ice was one of the first things we saw. I think that people got to notice about, you know, a real change. There were stories years ago starting to show that the sea ice was missing in the summertime. Right. And that was a very - well, we're going to talk more about that a bit later. But I remember reading stories about that.

Matthew, how do we know that the climate is changing? Give us some more - give us some more symptoms...

Dr. STURM: Well...

FLATOW: ...that we were seeing.

Dr. STURM: There...

FLATOW: You traversed this whole...

Dr. STURM: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...Arctic region. What did you see there?

Dr. STURM: Well, there - I mean, we saw a lot of snow and ice actually. And I think...

FLATOW: That's a good thing, right?

Dr. STURM: It is a good thing, but as Terry was mentioning, I mean, it's one of the essential things that is changing. Seen from space, over a period of time, the Arctic is a very white place. And because it's white, it reflects a tremendous amount of solar energy. And as we begin to shorten the time that the Arctic spends in its white phase and turns into its green or liquid phase, then we don't send as much energy back to space. We get into this what's called the feedback loop.

So one of the things we saw is lots of snow and ice, but that - it's not in danger. We'll still have snow and ice in the future here, but it won't be here as much. And strangely enough, that's a very serious thing. You think we'd like to have less snow and ice, but that means the Arctic, which is one of the radiators for the heat that comes into Earth, won't be any near as efficient as it was.

So as we travel along in a sense, we traveled on the snow and ice, and we - I think we came to recognize it as an essential feature of the Arctic that's fundamentally changing in a very profound way.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, Harrison, geologists - people - glaciologists, the people who study glaciers, were some of the first scientists to sound the alarm. I remember years ago - we're talking about the Arctic - but I remember over 25 years ago, I was in Antarctica talking to glaciologists on the Western Slope. They we're talking then about, you know, if we lose the sea ice that's holding this shelf back, it just can slide into the ocean. The glaciers are very, very good indicators, are they not?

Prof. HARRISON: Yeah. They're more than dynamic. They're, in some cases -particularly, the glaciers that reaches sea level - they're actually unstable. And they - massive changes, breakups can be triggered by fairly minor events. And that's going on in Alaska in the Columbia Glacier. Now, that's been going on through the historical record of the last 200 years. And I guess the - one of the big issues is whether or not this may begin in Greenland, the Greenland ice sheet, which is bigger than all of Alaska or the Antarctic ice sheet, which is bigger than all of the United States.

FLATOW: And why do we worry about the Greenland ice sheet? What could happen there?

Prof. HARRISON: I think the major most obvious thing is sea level. Right now, it's increasing at about 3 millimeters a year. And if that may seem small, but if you live a normal healthy life, that's a better part of a foot in one person's lifetime. And it's definitely accelerating. And - but if something or catastrophic were to happen in Greenland or parts of Greenland that would may turn out to be like Alaska, it would have a major effect on sea level.

FLATOW: And it could rise dramatically.

Prof. HARRISON: Yeah. Over a period of decades or hundred years.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Torre, some of the most compelling evidence for climate change comes from the permafrost. I had my first experience with permafrost while I was up here. I actually felt it, but didn't, you know, with a stick.

Mr. JORGENSON: Did you get stuck in a rut or...

FLATOW: No, I was up - we were up in Denali Park and someone who was - the tour guide said to me - I said I've never seen or felt the permafrost. Then, she took out her walking stick and she shoved it at about six, seven inches in through the ground, and it stopped what felt like cement. And I thought, you know, wow. This is the permafrost.

Mr. JORGENSON: Well, we're living in a great natural laboratory here in Alaska. And we have this tremendous gradient of climate from about minus 12 mean annual temperature up on the North Slope to about plus positive 2 around Anchorage. And we have permafrost that buries across that whole extent of gradient. And so, we are kind of seeing the whole transition that you would see with a warming climate across this gradient. And so it gives us a great opportunity to see how permafrost can respond, perhaps predict how or respond in the future.

And we're basically being hit by the proverbial hockey stick of the climate curve. And we're coming out of the little Ice Age. We could have been heading into an Ice Age without the intervention of human activity on this planet. And we've warmed, perhaps, 4-, 5-degrees-C in the last 150 years. And this is a tremendous temperature increase for the stability of permafrost. And we see that all around this - when I drove into town, I was avoiding the ruts on the road going to (unintelligible) valley, just getting on in here.

FLATOW: So it really is the one of the canaries in the mine, the one of the first indicators that something is changing?

Mr. JORGENSON: Yeah. In fact, one of the earliest observations of climate change was made by a scientist in Northern Alaska, Leffingwell, right around 1910. He was looking at permafrost temperatures that have been measured in a well over and rushing - already had interpreted the warming curve in the permafrost to be a sign of global warming. He didn't quite put it in that phrase, but he understood the implications of the warming permafrost.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Well, we're going to have to take a break and come back and talk lots more about Alaska, about the Artic regions, about climate change, global warming, with my guests, Terry Chapin, Torre Jorgenson, William Harrison and Matthew Sturm, and come back. We're also going to talk about something else about why ice matters and bring out another guest and also take questions from the audience. So if you're here in the audience, please, step up to the microphone with your questions. If you're at home, our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK.

Stay with us. We'll be right back after the short break.

(Soundbite of music)


FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're here in Fairbanks, Alaska, talking about the changes that are visible, currently visible in Alaska and around the Arctic around here in this International Polar Year. Talking with my guests, Terry Chapin, professor of ecology at the Institute of Arctic Biology. Torre Jorgenson, senior scientist at the ABR Incorporated in Fairbanks. William Harrison, physicist and glaciologist and professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute here at the University of Alaska. And Matthew Sturm, geophysicist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Someone is standing out there with a question? Let's go right to the mic over there. Yes, go right ahead.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah. Relating to your commentary on glacial melt and polar icecaps - in addition to increasing sea level rise, I expect there'd be some desalination when you're adding in a bunch of fresh water into the ocean. Can you talk a bit about what the impacts of desalinization? And if you could also talk about super storms, it's something I remember hearing back in 2005 -Hurricane Katrina, there is an prediction there will be a lot more high-impact hurricanes and storms.

FLATOW: In the arctic here?

Unidentified Woman: Sorry?

FLATOW: Hurricanes in the arctic? I don't know who you were listening to.

Unidentified Woman: Well, that the impact of the glacier melt would be changing the oceans to this extent where you'd be getting more hurricanes and what not?

FLATOW: Yeah. Matt, you want to take that?

Dr. STURM: Well, as far as the desalinization, the Arctic Ocean has the most amount of fresh water going into it of any ocean in the world from enormous rivers - the old Lena Sea, the McKenzie and so on. In addition, then there's tremendous amount of fresh water coming off of Greenland. The issue there is that as you desalinate the Arctic Ocean, the amount of fresh water that pours out of the ocean changes and could in fact impact the thermohaline circulation. That's a fancy word to just say the conveyor belt that exists in the Atlantic Ocean that basically brings heat from the equator north towards the European continent.

A lot of models are being run now. I think the issue is still on doubt as to whether injecting enough fresh water into the Arctic basin could change how that circulates. But there are some worrying studies that suggest it could in fact change it ways that would alter the climate very dramatically. I'm not sure I can answer about the super storms, though.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we'll do that when we go to Florida. We'll talk about that on New Orleans follow-up. Torre Jorgenson, let's talk about what happens along the coastlines; talk about, you know, storms - the coastlines take the worst battering, do they not?

Mr. JORGENSON: Well, about 80 percent of Alaskan's population and most of the circumarctic population lives right along the coast. And so we're intimately connected to sea ice, to the storms, and climate, and much of the Arctic populations live on permafrost directly in contact. So it's a transition zone that could be affected by the retreat of sea ice and opening a larger fetch of open water during the storm season particularly in October, and ice-rich permafrost is particularly susceptible to thaw in(ph) during that part of the term, and also, lot of those posts are built out of very erodable silt.

And so, every village along the coast in northern Alaska is having its share of problems, and there is a couple in particular, Shismaref and Kivalina, that are in particularly endangered by storms and opening fetch of sea ice and living on ice-rich permafrost.

FLATOW: Can you actually fly over the landscape and see where the permafrost is failing?

Mr. JORGENSON: It's one of the great ways that we can tell where permafrost is. Just the frost action and the growth of ice leaves distinctive patterns in the ground. And then when it thaws, it leaves these collapsing lakes and bogs and pens, and that's one of the best characteristic that we can use for trying to look at the patterns of permafrost across the landscape.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I was told that you can just watch in places where the trees are bent over, and we took the Alaskan railroad and we saw places where the trees were falling over, and that was a symptom that the permafrost was turning liquid in those places.

Mr. JORGENSON: Well, in the interior of Alaska, about 60 percent of the terrain is permafrost and maybe 40 percent of the terrain is ice-rich permafrost, and those are the areas that are susceptible to collapse. And many in the audience here in Alaska, when you fly out of the airport in Fairbanks, when you fly over the Flat's(ph) town - on Flat's - about almost half of the terrain now has collapsed from these thawing permafrost. And there's extensive areas where you just see the dead forest poking out of the water where the ground has collapsed.

FLATOW: Terry Chapin, Fairbanks - if I've read the travel brochures correctly -has holds the record in the world for the greatest temperature swings, right? That goes down in lowest temperature - highest temperature swings. Have the yearly temperature's been changing at all?

Prof. CHAPIN: Well, you're right. We have a highly continental climate, so it's cold in the winter and hot in the summer. And the climate has been changing a lot. Since about the mid-70s, it's been a lot warmer. And of course when that first happened, we had no way of knowing whether that was just an unusual year or not but it just keeps getting warmer. So we're - we used to be six or eight weeks of minus 40 weather in the wintertime, now it's unusual to have more than a week or so. So we see these kinds of large of temperature changes and that has huge implications.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the audience. Hi.

Unidentified Woman: Hi. Based on scientific studies, the native elders are reporting that the tundra plants are growing and becoming actual shrubs. So my question is, with that many more leaves, is there any chance that they would absorb carbon and maybe slow down of the effect?

FLATOW: Anybody want to jump in on that one?

Mr. JORGENSON: Sure, I can give that one a try. Yes, when you get more leaves, you're going to have more carbon absorbed by photosynthesis and stored. But the problem is that the temperature effects on respiration or the release of carbon from the plants and soils are even stronger. So, at least right now, we seem to be in a situation where we're losing carbon to the atmosphere and that - as you're probably suggesting - is a positive feedback to warming.

FLATOW: Matthew Sturm?

Dr. STURM: But one thing that we have do have a pretty good handle on is this -as the tundra - as the shrubs grow up in the tundra, of course - the tundra is very short and in the winter it's covered by snow - but if the shrubs grow tall enough then they protrude above the snow, now, instead of being a beautifully white landscape, it's kind of a speckled landscape with these dark shrubs. And that in fact, does have a fairly important difference in that. It's going to absorb more, more solar energy through the winter and particularly in the spring and fall. And we believe that's going to have one of these positive feedback impacts.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Dr. Harrison, how do you measure the size of the glacier? You think of ruler measurements, walk it off, you know?

Prof. HARRISON: There's a whole spectrum of high-tech. You can start with memories. They change that fast that you can remember changes - old photos. And we use a very accurate laser altimeter in a small airplane to map the surface elevations, and keep going right up to space, where the most recent technique measures change in gravity from satellites.

FLATOW: Do you actually have to measure it, let's say, the same time every year, so you say it's been this year?

Prof. HARRISON: We try very hard to do that whenever the flying weather permits. And if it doesn't we don't even try.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-2855 is our number. We're going to bring in another guest because no picture of the changing landscape in Alaska and the Arctic would be complete without a look at the sea ice. And the discovery of the thinning of the Arctic Sea ice was one of the defining moments, one of the early warning bells that global warming was indeed real. Joining me now by satellite phone from Barrow, Alaska, is Hajo Eicken. He is an associate professor at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Thanks for talking with us today, Dr. Eicken.

Professor HAJO EICKEN (Associate Professor, Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska): Yes, good morning.

FLATOW: Good morning to you. Tell us about the sea ice. How - tell us how it has changed over the years?

Prof. EICKEN: Well, as you've already mentioned and several other of your guests have pointed out, there's been later ice formation in the fall in the Arctic. Overall, the Arctic Sea ice cover has been thinning over the past few decades. We've, in particular, seen very significant reductions in the summer ice extent, when the ice starts to melt back.

And some of the largest changes actually have been observed in the western Arctic, north of Alaska and the northeastern Russian Arctic, where we have seen a lack of thick multiyear ice that has been replaced by seasonal ice that's just forms in the fall, late fall, early winter and then melts back completely again in the spring and early summer.

FLATOW: Now, why is sea ice so important? And why is knowing and watching it change so important?

Prof. EICKEN: Well, again, some of the people on your show have already pointed this out that, you know, you have to think of the Arctic Ocean as a system where a lot of the changes that occur over the water and over the ice impact temperatures and weather on the land. The prime reason of course is that the sea ice cover is a very component of the Earth's heat and radiation budget because of its high albedo. The fact that it reflects a lot of light back into the atmosphere, into space, it provides something of a cooling to the planet. And if you replace that ice cover by open water - one of the substances with the lowest albedo that we have on Earth - you're adding a significant amount of heat to the water.

And in fact, we're now, I think, several colleagues, and including the work that we're doing here, were starting to see that that heat in the ocean is lingering around throughout the winter, is contributing to a melt back of the ice from the bottom. And if you talk to local people here in Barrow, who of course spends a lot of time out on the ice hunting and for other activities, they're also starting to see a lot of these changes now occur.

CONAN: At least one computer model predicts that there may be no sea ice in the Artic in the summer by the year 2040. Do you think that is a possibility?

Prof. EICKEN: Well, I personally wouldn't plan any family vacations based on that. I mean, you have to understand that, of course, I mean, that the models give you a general indication that what seems to be happening now is that we're transitioning from one - what seems to be one state of the climate where we have sea ice in the Artic Ocean in the summer or year round, and that state seems to be transitioning into another state where we are not seeing any sea ice in the summer, and we just have seasonal ice that forms and then melts and reforms every year.

When exactly that transition is going to occur and even, you know, if this is a true transition or not, I - you know, as somebody who's mostly focusing on observations, I wouldn't want to have to guess on when exactly that's occurring. But clearly reasoned both modeling results and observations have shown that some of these changes are very, very rapid, and you can have these spurts where in fact ice retreat is even faster than what with the models predict.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I have one more question for you, then I'll let you go, Hajo. How would the melting of sea ice or how does the sea ice way up here in the Artic region affect anybody else in other parts of the world? Is it important to them?

Prof. EICKEN: Yeah. I would argue that, you know, recently, we've seen a number of model studies that show that with the changes in the ice cover, of course, you're changing atmospheric circulation patterns. You're changing precipitation patterns. There's an interesting study, a model study that was published a couple of years ago that indicates that as the ice edge moves further north, you're shifting the position of the Aleutian Low pressure system. That's very important for climate in the lower 48. And as a result of that, there maybe as much as a 30 percent reduction in water availability in the American West -California, Colorado, you know, those states that already very hard hit by water shortages.

So there's - even though some of this regional impacts are difficult to quantify, there's clearly an impact there. The other, other very, very significant impact I would argue that we're starting to see now as people become more aware of these changes is that potentially global patterns of trade and just the geopolitics of the Artic are changing as you're seeing changes in the ice cover. And you have a lot of nations now, circumarctic nations, who are reevaluating their economic zones. And so I would argue that there's impacts, both real and perceived, that are quite significant.

FLATOW: Well, I want thank you very much for taking time to be with us.

Prof. EICKEN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Hajo Eicken - you're welcome. Hajo Eicken is associate professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska and also doing research as part of the International Polar Year. Our number 1-800-989-8255. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow in the Fairbanks. We're talking about the effects of global warming, climate change on the Arctic and on - especially here in Alaska, where it's very, very visible. Let's see if we can go to the phones and take a phone call from someone who is waiting on the line. Let's go to Tom in Eugene, Oregon. Hi, Tom.

TOM (Caller): Yeah, hi. I've got an impression from a geology course that I've taken that we've had major climate shifts probably 18 or 19 times in recorded geological history, and that with the ocean covering three quarters of the globe, it would appear that suboceanic heat fence, methane hydrate deposits combined with factors like super volcanoes - Toba, for example - could have a much more significant impact on the turning point on climate change than anything that's happening on terra firma. I was wondering if anyone have any comments on that perspective and comments on whether adequate research has been done on the suboceanic aspects of climate change?


TOM: I'll take the response off the air. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. Matthew, any response to that?

Dr. STURM: Well, I'm not very knowledgeable about southern oceans. What I do know is people live on land, and a lot of the focus is because the ecosystem in which we live are changing. So we do need to understand these climate drivers, but what we're really in amidst of in the Arctic here is this whole host of things that are changing and affecting the way we live. That's the reason I think our focus is there. We live here. We live in these systems and we're feeling the impact. We also know that the Artic, through the way it moderates the Earth's heat budget, is very important so that's the reason for the focus there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I guess people are having trouble understanding how - what goes on up here affects them in the lower 48.

Dr. STRUM: Yeah, that's probably - it's hard, I suppose, if you live somewhere in the middle of the United States and you think the Artic is a long ways away then you - but maybe the analogy is this. If you were in a building whose air conditioning had gone out in Austin, Texas, say, you would quickly notice that the building was heating up and that was bad. You'd start to call around to the - maybe the public, the maintenance guys and say, what's going on? Well, the air conditioning is broking - broken.

Ultimately, what's going to happen here is going to break the air conditioning, the cooling of Earth further point south. So as Hajo referred to - and as I think we're all sort of aware - as we change what the Arctic can do in terms of getting rid of Earth's heat, we're going to change what happens everywhere on Earth. We - it has to follow. And so what happens here matters to people everywhere.

FLATOW: Everybody wants to jump in and that's good. And we'll go to the audience for questions, too, but we have to take a break so stay with us. We'll come back and talk more about what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this short break from Fairbanks, Alaska.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour about climate change, and how it's reshaping Alaska and the Arctic with my guest Harry Chapin, Torre Jorgenson, William Harrison and Matthew Sturm. Our number here is 1-800-989-8255 in the auditorium at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. Let's go to this gentleman in the aisle.

Unidentified Man: Hi. The discussion today has focused mostly on Alaska, but I'm sure there are similar changes taking place in the Russian Arctic, the Canadian Arctic and other circumarctic nations. In the context of the International Polar Year, I'm wondering if you could comment on cooperation among scientists from these different nations, and perhaps differences in ways that these different nation's scientists are approaching questions of climate change.

FLATOW: Anybody who want to take - Matthew?

Dr. STURM: Well, I'll start. At the bench level, at our - at the science level, we really don't see borders in the Artic - air, water, snow - everything moves across without knowing. Its going from one country to another, and we can't solve the problems related to climate change without crossing borders. So my personal case - the traverse I did across Alaska was U.S. and Canadian. So at that level, it's pretty straightforward.

As you move up, the issues really sort of come back to how you get your money to do the research, and that varies from one country to another. Each of the scientists in the country have to figure out their own system and how to work that and they're pretty clever at that. So by and large, you sort of meet them half way and hope for the best, but we don't see any borders sort of at the physical level we deal with.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Terry Chapin, there are a lot of fires burning in Alaska, aren't there?

Prof. CHAPIN: That's right. One of the things that results from warming and especially from the loss of permafrost is that things dry out. When they dry out, they burn. The wildfires are probably the most important disturbance in the Borial Forest, and the area burned in western north America has doubled in the last 40 years or so. And so this has huge impacts both smoke impacts on communities, health risk, sometimes the air quality is like that of Los Angeles. And then also just the affects on habitat for animals that are important to subsistence users, changes the availability of moose, caribou and so fort to the local communities.

FLATOW: And, you know, everybody talks about the salmon in Alaska. Are the salmon populations being affected by the climate change?

Prof. CHAPIN: Well, as you mentioned at the very beginning, everything is connected in everything else, and so there certainly are effects of changes in water temperature on salmon and parasite loads and things like that.

FLATOW: Let's go to the audience. Yes, ma'am. Step up, please. We'll get to you. Go ahead.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you for this opportunity to ask this question. And I don't know about what its risk for another show, but my concern is that because of the audience that is available especially through NPR, that we can impact the dialogue that needs to happen on so many levels. Are there scientists developing and studying models of how people live, will live or can live in the future world with some of these changes already in effect? And I realized that that's hypothetical, but I don't know if you can address that.

FLATOW: Any - you wanted?

Prof. CHAPIN: There was a very interesting study the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which was completed a year a half ago, which basically explored scenarios of changes that people can make in their lifestyles that will influence that way in which the climate system and the Earth in general will -is likely to change over the next few years. So I think we have some choices that we can make and we are having - it's getting more and more clear what those choices are and the consequences of those choices.

FLATOW: Torre Jorgenson, I understand that one of the side effects of melting permafrost is methane release. We haven't heard much about that.

Mr. JORGENSON: Well, there are several large consequences to the loss of permafrost - effects on human facilities, the changes in habitats from forest, to lakes, and fence and coastlines, as you've mentioned. And then one that's deserving a lot of attention is what's happening with the carbon balance both in CO2 release and or sequestration, or methane release. And the permafrost is a tremendous store of frozen peat and organic material.

And when you release that either in a aerobic environment where it can be mineralized to CO2, you can release that large store of CO2, or in a anaerobic water-flooded environment that can be methane. And there's been - a few exciting studies in the last few years on just what - how large the potential consequences of this methane release can be. There's a lot of work that still has to be done to understand that in the most extreme context. It can be described as a methane bomb, but that is really is a thing that we have to grapple.

And then the other really interesting item of concern that goes to Tom's questions of the large historical and geological perspective is, what is the stability of these methane hydrates or clathrates in a sub-sea environment where temperature, cold temperatures and pressures can maintain these methane stores throughout the world but also in Arctic Ocean seas. And there's some evidence or hypothesis that this methane released from these clathrates have driven very large warmings in large historical periods. And there's a big effort to grapple what is the potential dimension of the problem and that's a big unknown at this time.

FLATOW: You know, we've talked about glaciers collapsing in Greenland, rising tremendous sea levels. You just talked about a methane bomb that's potentially there. We've talked about fires that we have, on the present, we haven't seen before. I get the suspicion from talking to you scientists and other scientists that things are a lot worse than scientists are really willing to admit - just out of fear of alarming the public - because what are we going to do about it? Why alarm the public if we can't do much about it? Am I reading this correctly, Matthew?

Dr. STURM: Well, I mean, scientists by nature are a bit conservative in interpreting the data, and probably are more interesting to listen to in a bar over a beer than they are in a radio show in public.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well, that's actually how I heard about this almost...

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: Because you know, they would say - well, I'm afraid to say these things, but I said, well, that's why we have radio programs and we bring scientists on to talk about it. And you know, if you're not going to tell us the truth, why even talk - why sugarcoat it? You know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. STURM: I think that course that many of use feel that these things are all sort of coming together in a very worrisome way and we certainly don't know how to deal with them or whether they can be mitigated. At the same time, I think because we tend to deal with the component parts, we get overwhelmed by the complexity of the system and we know how ignorant we are about putting the whole thing together. And we're worried, as Torre said, about the surprises.

So our conservative streak over a beer - I don't have to be conservative, but as a scientist then I have to be a bit conservative because I don't know about the methane. I'm not sure about the carbon uptake. And that since I'm speaking metaphorically...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. STURM: ...for everybody, these are reservations right now taken en mass when you step back from my special tiers (unintelligible) so on. Yeah, it looks -there's a lot of things that are happening, and I think it's definitely left us alarmed. I'd suppose that's about as far as I should go on - and we'll get a beer afterward and maybe go into it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Torre, do you agree with that impression?

Mr. JORGENSON: Well, there are so many complex interactions between these systems and we often look at just a couple of parts at a time. And when you put down the complexity of it, it becomes somewhat unpredictable and so - then we become cautious because we get way out beyond what we feel comfortable predicting.

But we continually get surprised by how dramatic these changes can be. And we've been seeing them within our lifetime. The last couple of decades when we drive down the road or go along the coast, we see really large changes. And for the Arctic, we're in that transition zone, this period of great transition. We're right at the time when ice is melting, and you have four panelists that are dedicated to the cryosphere. So the actual, most sensitive component of the planet, of this melting water phase change, and we're right in the midst of it. And for us it's a dramatic time.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Did - you can jump in.

Prof. CHAPIN: It seems though that we do know - we know a lot about what's causing these things and we know that it's relatively straightforward and we have the technology to reduce fossil fuel consumption, which is one of the important drivers of change. So we know that we can reduce the threats to climate change.

At the same time, we know that we're like driving the Titanic - it's going to be slow to turn. And so even - no matter what we do in terms of reducing climate change, if we want our children to have a better world, we know that we need to make those changes now for their future. And at the same time, we need to be prepared to adapt to the changes that are embedded by the decisions that were made 50 years ago.

FLATOW: But do you think we can do more than just rearrange the chairs on the Titanic at this point?

Prof. CHAPIN: Absolutely. There's a lot of things that can be done to reduce fossil fuel consumption, to reduce many of the changes...

FLATOW: Well, I don't mean to interrupt. I mean, we know what can be done, but do we have the will and the, you know, the desire and the alarm going off and off in our heads to get something done?

Prof. CHAPIN: That's why I think this program is important. It's really important to take what we know and convert that into action. And things are getting desperate enough now that I think we need to throw away some of our conservatism and just act.

FLATOW: You know, I think if everybody lived in his own like this, or enough people lived in Arctic region and could see what's going on everyday, you know, then more things might happen. I always say that on the program, we talk about a hurricane and New Orleans or an earthquake in California or whatever - if people in, you know, in decision-making communities actually lived in those places that decisions would get made a lot faster and sooner.

Dr. STURM: Yeah. Absolutely. As we went across Alaska and Canada - we talk to people throughout the Arctic, I think Terry's view, sort of, prevails. We don't really have to proselytize here so much anymore because we're at ground zero. So somehow, maybe that's an Arctic export we need to, sort of, do more of like, on this program, is bring that sense of immediacy to decision making further south because here it's already arrived.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Yes? You want to say something, Will, go ahead? Did you...

Prof. HARRISON: I think many of us see the IP Wise as an opportunity for education of the world at large is it's what's going on in the polar regions and how it impacts them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the IP Wise is going to be going on for two years, right? And its main goal is what? If you had to sum it up in a sound bite?

Prof. HARRISON: I think many of us here - I don't know if I speak for everybody - I think it's educational. It's even more important than what science gets done.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. Let me see if I have quick-question time for one in the audience.

Unidentified Man (Audience): Hello. I've lived in Fairbanks for 32 years and the biggest change I've noticed in those decades is the drying. The summers have gotten a lot drier and the winters have gotten a lot less snowy. And that affects things greatly even more than the skiing in the winter and the fishing in the summer. The forest fires of '04 made this place miserable. And if that happens again, real estate prices will go down.

There are also studies, I think, have been done at the Geophysical Institute that showed that lakes in the interior and freshwater non-glacial rivers are also shrinking. There is less boating, less fishing and similar impacts. If you could discuss that, please.

FLATOW: Terry Chapin, you want to take a crack?

Prof. CHAPIN: Sure. Those observations are quite correct and they've been -people in the villages have been talking about these changes for years now. And they've been really observing these changes, and they see changes in the waterfowl that are available to hunt. Changes in forest fires, as you pointed out. And we're likely to see more of those extremely dry years in the future, and to see those more and more frequently. We see extreme fire years, perhaps three or four times a decade now, rather than once or twice, which is what it used to be. And so these kinds of changes are widespread and they are likely to become more extreme.

FLATOW: Are we going to see more diseases spread, more insects and pestilence like that move around?

Prof. CHAPIN: Yes. That's quite likely to be true. For example, in the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska, the warming - the gradual warming caused the bark beetles to shift from a two-year life cycle to a one-year life cycle. And that really changed the balance between the trees and the insects and gave the insects the upper hand and caused a massive bark beetle outbreak and forest die back.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And we'll see the nature of the forest change themselves.

Prof. CHAPIN: Yes. I think the forests are quite likely to change. In some places, we may be losing forests to grasslands. In other places, we may be losing tundra to forests. So I think we're in for a lot of changes. And since most of the native people in Alaska live in villages that are fixed in place, they don't have the luxury of moving to where there - the vegetation is that they are familiar with. Now, they're going to be stuck with new conditions.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And yet you're still optimistic about working our way out of this?

Prof. CHAPIN: I think we have to. We have to reduce the pressures for changing climate, and we need to be prepared to adapt to the changes that do occur.

FLATOW: Do you all agree with that? Will, You think - feel optimistic?

Prof. HARRISON: Well, what's the alternative?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HARRISON: I think optimism is a much better state to go into trying to address the changes than pessimism. And I think there is good reason to be optimistic because humans are very creative, and I think once we begin to grapple with the problem, we'll find - create of adaptive solutions and we'll galvanize more. The thing is we've got to get started.

FLATOW: Okay. I want to thank you all for taking time to be with us today and thank you all here in the audience. That's all the time we have for this hour.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I also want to thank our guests. Sir Terry Chapin, professor of ecology at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Torre Jorgenson, senior scientist at ABR Incorporated in Fairbanks. William Harrison, professor emeritus at the Geophysical Institute at the university of Alaska, Fairbanks. And Matthew Sturm, geophysicist at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

I'm Ira Flatow in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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