Alaska: The Canary in the Coal Mine

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8/23/19. Home Again, Questa, NM

Someone commented  to us after we got home that, in the pictures of us above the Arctic Circle we were frequently wearing jackets, even though it was the end of July – the middle of summer!.   Yeah, we certainly did that.  Even when our little plane was on the ground and we were outside running around the sand dunes of Kobuk Valley, we had jackets on.  We had to to be comfortable – the temperature was above 60 degrees.

But, wait a minute – remember that we were north of the Arctic circle in what is one of the coldest places on earth!  So wouldn’t you expect the temperature to require jackets??  The average July high in Anaktuvuk Pass over the last several decades  is 63 degrees and July is the hottest month of the year!  Kotzebue, located on the coast where the weather is moderated somewhat by ocean breezes, the average high temperature is 60 degrees.

Kobuk Valley, North of the Arctic Circle, Late July

But, when we were in either Kotzebue or Anaktuvuk Pass – above the arctic circle – the temperatures were well into the 60s and approaching 70 degrees.  We had our jackets on, but they were more for the time spent in the airplane than they were on the ground.  The pilots and a couple of locals we spoke to commented on how extraordinarily warm it was.  So we landed right in the middle of the big debate – were these temperatures signs of global warming, or just a ‘heat wave’?  Was this abnormal heat just a temporary aberration, or the signal of impending big changes?  

Consider a few other facts we encountered on our trip:

Nome’s Sea Wall and Rising Ocean Level
Icebergs calving more frequently
Rivers, fed by glacier-melt, are running significantly faster.
  • Locals in Nome, on the south shore of the Seward peninsula, told us that there were signs that the rock wall that had been built by the U.S. Corps of Engineers decades ago to protect Nome from damaging sea storms, was finally being worn away by the incessant pounding of ocean waves that were now higher up the beach than anyone can remember.
  • The shuttle drivers for our Anchorage hotel told us that Anchorage was experiencing the longest and most severe heat wave they could ever remember.  (In fact, the month of July was declared the hottest month on record for Anchorage over more than a century!)
  • When we were in Anchorage and again in Fairbanks, hotel people and waitresses in restaurants told us that the smoke we were feeling in our eyes was coming from forest fires in the Kenai peninsula and in the interior of Alaska.  Both of those fires were the largest ever recorded in Alaska and they were both happening at the same time.  The one in the interior was, apparently, on record as the largest forest fire in U.S. history.
  • Everytime we crossed a river, we were amazed at how high they were and how much water was coursing through them.  A park ranger for Wrangell – St. Elias told us in McCarthy that the Chitina and Copper rivers were running at 30% above their normal flow rate for the month of July.  What makes that especially noteworthy is that the snowfall last winter in the mountains that feed these rivers was significantly lower than it usually is.  Puzzled, I asked where all the water was coming from if the precipitation rate was down.  He pointed up at the glaciers in the mountains and simply said ‘They’re melting!”
  • When at Kenai Fjords and at Glacier Bay, we took boat rides that pushed up close to the toe of several different glaciers where they entered ocean water.  The rangers on these boats explained that the pace of glacial retreat has significantly increased and the calving incidents (where icebergs break off the glaciers and fall into the ocean) have increased dramatically.  While that can result in a very impressive show for tourists, it also means that the glacial ice is falling away at an ever faster pace.
  • Fishermen report that the distribution of the different fish types they are catching in places like Norton Sound are changing quickly.  Catch of cold-water species, like King Crab, are falling off, while warm-water catch is increasing – in some places.  (The harvest is most threatened, apparently, in the northern waters.  That is also where there is the highest  level of subsistence fishing by Alaskan native peoples.)
  • When we were at Denali, we saw pictures of the taiga (the boreal forest that occupies much of the northern foothills of the Alaskan range).  Half of the pictures were taken decades ago and the other half were recent, but both were of the same foothill mountains.  They show a dramatic increase in the number of black spruce trees in areas that used to be tundra!
  • I read reports online and in the local papers, that the permafrost in several regions of the state was starting to thaw.  The result is that hundreds, and maybe soon to be thousands, of small surface water ponds and lakes are disappearing.  These watering holes are an integral part of the life cycle for mammals and birds, not to mention the specialized plants that grow on tundra.
Tundra Lakes and Ponds disappearing as the Permafrost Melts
Taiga growing where it never grew before.
Biggest problem might be the unknown effects of thawing permafrost!

Climate scientists consider Alaska to be like the canary in the coal mine.  Climate change is going to hit there before it is felt severely anywhere else.  After spending two months there, my experience tells me that it is happening, and it is happening now.  Entire eco-systems are changing while we are watching.  Sadly no-one has yet really figured out how this is going to change our world, but spend some time in Alaska and you’ll start to get the idea that it will be profound.  Global warming is real and undeniable.  And very scary.