McKinley Fire

A section along the Parks Highway is burned from the McKinley Fire.

Enjoy the smoke this summer? Get used to it.

Wildfires around Alaska will get bigger and more frequent as climate change triggers higher temperatures and dries out the forests.

A raging spruce bark beetle infestation, speeded by dried-out trees and warmer summers, has also infected half a million acres spruce forest, much of it in Southcentral Alaska.

Nice to wear shorts this summer, but face masks may now be part of the attire.

A new report from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center presents a gloomy assessment of climate-related changes taking place across Alaska, where warming is happening at twice the rate of warming in more temperate regions. Not only is the summer Arctic icepack vanishing but the frozen permafrost that underlies the oilfields on Alaska’s North Slope is warming on a trend that will see it reaching the melt point in 2021, according to temperature studies by University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists.

That has sobering implications for anyone in Alaska in 2021 – not us, but our grandchildren. It’s not clear how our North Slope oilfields and Trans Alaska Pipeline System could operate in such conditions.

Global picture is sobering

Equally sobering was Dr. Katharine Hayhoe’s presentation on global climate change presented in a recent talk at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Hayhoe, a physicist from Texas Tech University, who has won awards for her ability to communicate the complexities of climate change, sounded the expected alarms but also landed on a more hopeful note. We can slow the warming if we slow our burning of carbon-based fuels, but we have to do this fast, she said.

Hayhoe was optimistic that possible technological solutions that could help. Use of renewable energy for power generation is growing fast worldwide and its costs are dropping.

“In 2014 we reached a crossover point where, for the first time, there were more ‘clean fuel’ than fossil fuel (energy) installations. By 2017 clean fuel installations reached 70 percent,” she told her audience at UAA. In California the cost of generating power with solar is plummeting.

This still leaves the big transportation sector — autos, trucks, ships and airplanes – but there’s progress here too, with electric vehicles becoming more common and less expensive. Airlines are experimenting with using biofuels and even electric engines. There is also a lot of experimentation with facilities that could remove carbon dioxide, a major contributor to atmospheric warming, from power plant emissions.

But technology shouldn’t be an excuse for changing our behavior, slowing use of carbon and halting it as soon as possible, Hayhoe warned.

Fossil fuels have benefitted humanity

Meanwhile, there’s no doubt that use of fossil fuels has made human progress possible, Hayhoe told her UAA listeners. Life expectancy, mainly in western Europe and North America, has doubled since the 1700s thanks to advances in agriculture, nutrition, health, prosperity and well-being made possible by the availability of energy, the bulk of it from fossil fuel.

“Fossil fuel has replaced animal labor, child labor and slave labor,” Hayhoe said, the latter referring to the North’s victory over the slave-owning South in the Civil War made possible by the stronger, energy-intensive industrial economy of the North.

Now the tipping point is being reached, with the accumulation of Co2 and other greenhouse gas in the atmosphere causing a worldwide warming that is already disrupting many nations and societies, and with catastrophic consequences likely even in the medium term.

“We cannot just pull the plug on fossil fuels, however, without causing more immediate suffering, but there are four reasons why we cannot continue as we are,” Hayhoe said.

First is the imbalance of the location of energy resources on the earth relative to where most people in poverty live (in developing nations like most of Africa) creates an inequity that is already causing social and political unrest, for example causing disruptive migrations from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe and Central America to the U.S. border. As climate change accelerates these problems will escalate.

Secondly, the overreliance on fossil fuels creates not just climate change but localized impacts like mountaintop removal for coal mining in Appalachia, which also causes toxic water pollution from runoff.

Third, for Alaska at least, it’s unwise to pin the state’s economy and state government revenue base on one resource, petroleum, Hayhoe said.

Fourth, the combustion of fossil fuels creates air pollution that contributes to premature death, as many as five million people a year.

Link between fossil fuel and warming long known

Hayhoe also said the links between combustion of fossil fuels and warming of the atmosphere has long been known to science. One of the first connections was made in pioneering work by British scientists in 1856.

“We knew 200 years ago that as populations grow there would be more carbon emissions,” causing warming, Hayhoe said.

The current warming is not a natural cycle, either. Climate modeling shows that we should be in a cooling, not warming, trend. The buildup of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere has interrupted this. “We have indefinitely postponed the next ice age,” Hayhoe told the UAA audience.

Most of those who deny human-caused climate change use the natural variation argument, though the historical evidence contradicts this. The warm period known as the “Medieval Warming,” a period of benign weather in that lasted several centuries (it was when the Vikings colonized southern Greenland) and that was followed by a cool cycle, years when the Thames River in England froze over.

Those were true natural climate cycles, but these cycles affect regions, not the globe. When Europe was in its Medieval Warming, Siberia experienced a long cold cycle.

This warming period is different. Temperature records show the warming is worldwide, which is different than the earlier warming period, Hayhoe said.

Climate change deniers cling to the natural cycle argument, however. Some bring out their own studies showing no warming, or at least no human-caused warming to contradict the bulk of the scientific papers.

Hayhoe said she and colleagues located 38 published studies which contradict what most scientists believe. “When we examined these, we found either errors, false assumptions, flawed logic or missing factors. When we corrected for these it brought the results of all 38 in line with the results,” of other widely-accepted studies, Hayhoe said.

Current warming causing extreme weather

The current warming appears to also cause extreme weather events, including in Alaska. Houston, Texas, was experienced its third “500-year” flood over three years, storm events that were supposed to be once every 500 years. Hurricanes are not more numerous, but they are carrying significantly more precipitation. The big storms are moving more slowly, which increases damage when they linger over communities, which Hurricane Dorian did this year in the northern Bahamas. The storms are moving further north, too. “Dorian struck Nova Scotia as a Category 2 hurricane,” which is unprecedented, Hayhoe said. All of these events are predicted in modeling as effects of atmospheric warming.’

In Alaska, Southcentral Alaska had a long summer drought, which spawned wildfires. Fairbanks had an unusually wet summer this year, with extended periods of heavy rain. The spruce bark beetle infestation that covered 20,000 acres of forest in 2015 is covering 600,000 acres four years later, in 2019, according to the new UAF International Arctic Research Center study.

Beetle-killed trees create a huge fuel load for fires, and when this is combined with warm weather and dried-out forests in general, more and larger fires should be no surprise. The number of large wildfires, of more than one million acres, have increased 50 percent since 1990 compared with the 1950-1989 period, the UAF study showed.

Larger fires correspond to more smoky days: Fairbanks had only only summer, in 1957, with more than three weeks of significant smoke until 2003. Since 2004 there have been five summers with more than three weeks of smoke including one year with two such smoky periods, UAF researchers wrote in the paper.

Tim Bradner is co-publisher of the Alaska Economic Report and Alaska Legislative Digest

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