Warming Is A Costly Reality In Alaska
In Shishmaref, on the Chukchi Sea just south of the Arctic Circle, it means high water eating away so many houses and buildings that people will vote next month on whether to move the entire village inland.
In Barrow, the northernmost city in North America, it means coping with mosquitoes in a place where they once were nonexistent, and rescuing hunters trapped on breakaway ice at a time of year when such things once were unheard of.
In Fairbanks, where wildfires have been burning off and on since mid-May, it means living with hydraulic jacks to keep houses from slouching on foundations that used to be frozen all year. Permafrost, they say, no longer is permanent.
On the Kenai Peninsula, a recreation wonderland south of Anchorage, it means living in a 4 million-acre spruce forest that has been killed by beetles, the largest loss of trees to insects ever recorded in North America, federal officials say. Government scientists tied the event to rising temperatures, which allow the beetles to reproduce at twice their normal rate.
In Alaska, rising temperatures, whether caused by greenhouse-gas emissions or nature in a prolonged mood swing, are not a topic of debate or an abstraction. Mean temperatures have risen by 5 degrees in summer and 10 degrees in winter since the 1970s, federal officials say.
While President Bush was dismissive of a report the government recently released on how global warming will affect the nation, the leading Republican in this state, Sen. Ted Stevens, says that no place is experiencing more startling changes from rising temperatures than Alaska. Among the consequences, Stevens says, are sagging roads, crumbling villages, dead forests, catastrophic fires and possible disruption of marine wildlife. These problems will cost Alaska hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Alaska is harder hit by global climate change than any place in the world," Stevens said.
The social costs of higher temperatures have been mostly negative, people in the state say. The Bush administration report, drafted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), also found few positives to Alaska's thermal rise. But it said climate change would bring a longer growing season and open ice-free seas in the Arctic for shipping.
"There can no longer be any doubt that major changes in the climate have occurred in recent decades in the region, with visible and measurable consequences," the government reported to the United Nations last month.
On the Kenai Peninsula, a forest nearly twice the size of Yellowstone National Park is in the last phases of a graphic death. Century-old spruce trees stand silvered and cinnamon-colored as they bleed sap.
A sign at Anchor River Recreation Area near the town of Anchor Point poses a question many tourists have been asking, "What's up with all the dead spruce trees on the Kenai Peninsula?" The population of spruce bark beetles, which have long fed on these evergreen trees, exploded as temperatures rose, foresters now say.
Throughout the Kenai, people are clearing some of the 38 million dead trees, answering the call from officials to create a "defensible space" around houses for fire protection. Last year, two major fires occurred on this peninsula, and with temperatures in the 80s in mid-May this year, officials say fire is imminent.
"It's just a matter of time before we have a very large, possibly catastrophic forest fire," said Ed Holsten of the Forest Service.
Joe Perletti, who lives in Kasilof in the Kenai Peninsula, has rented a bulldozer to clear dead trees from the 10 acres where he lives.
"It's scary what's going on," Perletti said. "I never realized the extent of global warming, but we're living it now. I worry about how it will affect my children."
Perletti, an insurance agent, said some insurers no longer sold fire policies to Kenai Peninsula homeowners in some areas surrounded by dead spruce.
Another homeowner, Larry Rude, has cut a few trees, but has decided to take his chances at the house he owns near Anchor Point. Rude says he no longer recognizes Alaska weather.
"This year, we had a real quick melt of the snow, and it seemed like it was just one week between snowmobiling in the mountains and riding around in the boat in shirt-sleeve weather," Rude said.
Other forests, farther north, appear to be sinking or drowning as melting permafrost forces water up. Alaskans call the phenomenon "drunken trees."
For villages that hug the shores of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas, melting ice is the enemy. Sea ice off the Alaska coast has retreated by 14 percent since 1978, and thinned by 40 percent since the mid-1960s, the federal report said. Climate models predict Alaska temperatures will continue to rise over this century, by up to 18 degrees.
North of Fairbanks, roads have buckled, telephone poles have started to tilt, and homeowners have learned to live in houses that are more than a few bubbles off plumb. Everyone, it seems, has a story.
"We've had so many strange events, things are so different than they used to be, that I think most Alaskans now believe something profound is going on," said Glenn Juday, an authority on climate change at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
"We're experiencing indisputable climate warming. The positive changes from this take a long time, but the negative changes are happening real fast."