How Serious is Climate Change in Alaska?
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand. Alaska is on the front lines of climate change. Severe storms, flooding, ice jams and erosion are just some of what's happening there. And climatologists say that is just the beginning.
Elizabeth Arnold reports.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD: The fact that Arctic sea ice is shrinking came as no surprise to the several hundred Alaskan natives gathered at a conference this week in Anchorage. But the rate of that shrinking did raise eyebrows. Those who've lived for generations along the pack ice listened intently as climatologists made dire predictions.
Ignatius Rigor of the University of Washington says the younger sea ice is melting so quickly that, quote, "We may have passed the tipping point."
Mr. IGNATIUS RIGOR (University of Washington): If you look at what we - conditions we had in the '80s - you know, where we had a lot of older, thicker sea ice over most of the Arctic Ocean - and the conditions we have now, it's hard to see how the system may come back.
ARNOLD: The prospect of an ice-free Arctic has a multitude of consequences, many of which were discussed at length this week. While the plight of the polar bear has captured the hearts of those in the lower 48 states, more than 100 coastal villages here are endangered as well.
Steve Ivanoff is from Unalakleet.
Mr. STEVE IVANOFF: You don't sleep. It's like we know we have to move, but we don't have the resources to make it happen. And the problem is that we're not prepared for a storm of 10 percent higher magnitude that could steamroll over the whole village. And you know, it's frustrating for me to hear all the resources put into the protection of polar bear and the walrus and da-da-da. And here we have a whole tribe of 230 people which are a subspecies of a species.
ARNOLD: Not only is there the immediate risk of storms wiping out villages, there are also health risks from the flooding of sewage lagoons, a lack of fresh water, and even new insects moving north that could spread disease.
At the same time there's growing concern among subsistence users like Ivanoff that an open Arctic will attract more oil and gas development, industrial fishing, and even tourism.
The potential shipping boom has caught the attention of the Coast Guard. Rear Admiral Gene Brooks told the forum that maritime traffic is no longer limited to icebreakers.
Rear Admiral GENE BROOKS (U.S. Coast Guard): Of course people are going to pay big bucks to come to the Arctic to see the ice and the polar bears. Last summer, to my surprise, three cruise ships made it through the Northwest Passage and into northern Alaska, with one calling it Point Barrel.
ARNOLD: Some are concerned, however, that the state is so caught up in dealing with the effects of climate change, it's missed the point that it could be doing something about it.
Deborah Williams heads up Alaska Conservation Solutions.
Ms. DEBORAH WILLIAMS (Alaska Conservation Solutions): I believe it is important for the state of Alaska not only to be the poster child for the impacts, which we are, and to let the nation and world know the magnitude of those impacts, but also to be a model in showing that we care enough about those impacts to reduce our carbon footprint, to reduce our carbon emissions.
ARNOLD: Williams and others worry that if not managed with caution, new opportunities presented by climate change, like ice-free shipping lanes, off-shore oil development, expanded fisheries, could compound the problem of climate change.
Still, she says, Alaska has progressed considerably. The debate no longer is over whether climate change is occurring here but rather what to do about it.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Arnold in Anchorage.
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