August 2015

What Happens in the Arctic….

As world leaders, including President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and a number of foreign ministers, head to Alaska this weekend to discuss the threat of climate change in the Arctic (and ICCI will be there, with our European Director Dr. Svante Bodin addressing the ministers on black carbon), the impact of climate change for Alaskans is everywhere.  Oddly high temperatures, less sea ice for hunting and fishing, snow-free periods that nearly caused a cancellation of the annual Iditarod dogsled race — disturbing images abound.

Perhaps the most tragic stories are of entire indigenous communities collapsing and relocating due to the early impacts of climate change.  Less sea ice means exposing the coastline to fall and spring storms that have become measurably more severe, wiping out seaside villages.  More insidious is the collapse of homes from below, when sinkholes from a suddenly-thawing permafrost cause houses to shift and cant like crazy images from a children’s book.  But this is no story time:  assaulted from the sea and from below, increasing numbers of villages are moving, increasing history and tradition lost.

Alaska and the rest of the Arctic have been called a “canary in a coal mine” for years, and in Obama’s video* announcing the GLACIER conference, you can see all these impacts and more.  These tragedies, however, are just the tip of the climate change iceberg, and the larger story is not the Arctic as canary, but as the beginning of a wave of changes to the Earth system that will soon become unstoppable if we do not take far greater and faster action to bring down greenhouse gases, black carbon and other climate drivers.

We can no longer afford to think of the Arctic and other cryosphere regions as the canary in the coal mine – an early indicator of trouble that causes workers to leave the mine.  (We can’t evacuate the Earth.)  Instead, think of these regions as sub-sea earthquakes.  The initial tremor only impacts buildings in the immediate area of the quake – but the ensuing tsunami brings far greater, and far more widespread, damage and destruction.

So it is with cryosphere climate change:  the permafrost that melts under Alaska’s communities also releases more carbon to the atmosphere – the greater the warming and the longer it continues, the greater the global problem.  Melting land glaciers that cause local flooding or rob nearby communities of seasonal water raise sea level the world around – and at current rates, the peak melting of mountain glaciers outside the poles will occur by mid-century.  Those glaciers and permafrost cannot “grow back” absent a new global Ice Age.  The loss to local communities, our carbon budget and the added sea level are essentially permanent.

Unlike earthquakes and tsunamis, however, climate change is something we are causing and can bring to a halt, even now.  What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic, and the same leaders and foreign ministers gathering in Alaska can take the political risk in Paris four months later to respond to this threat – or follow political expediency and ignore the ground shaking beneath them.

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