The Arctic Gets a New Ecosystem

As the Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get want you want.” Fair enough. But sometimes, unfortunately, you get exactly the opposite of what you need. That’s certainly true of the Arctic this past winter. The last thing it needed was to break another warm weather record, yet that’s exactly what happened.

The extent of the warming has even caught scientists off guard. The record jump in temperatures “is probably the all-time surprise we’ve seen in the Arctic,” according to Jim Overland, a research oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.]

Needless to say, when you manage to surprise the folks who’ve spent their careers studying you, you’ve accomplished something. Not necessarily something good, but something. What does this mean for the Arctic?

Alaska Glacier2

What it means is that the Arctic gets a complete makeover. Yes, that’s right. A new ecosystem is emerging in the Arctic and it’s wreaking havoc with life in the region: thinner ice, shorter winters, new animals, new vegetation. In short, everything is changing. Everything.

“For the elders in the community, they’ve seen the entire ecosystem change,” said Fort Yukon local Ed Alexander in a Washington Post report last month. “A lot of it is a dramatic change. We have a whole other ecosystem here.”

Oops. We did that. The salmon are smaller, the caribou have changed their migration routes, new plant life is overgrowing usually clear dog sled trails, more forest fires are occurring, and even cardinals are showing up in Fort Yukon.

Think about that last news flash. It’s the rough equivalent of pink flamingos making an appearance on the shores of Cayuga Lake. Imagine the shock if that happened while you were walking along the Waterfront Trail. In the words of Mr. Alexander, “When you see a red bird for the first time in your life, you take note.”

And in case you think it’s only Alaska that has caught climate scientists by surprise, think again. Here’s what Mike MacFerrin, a University of Colorado climate scientist, had to say earlier this month about another well-known region in the Arctic: “melt in Greenland, over this wide an area, this early in the season, is not supposed to happen.”

In fact, the melt was taking place so early and so fast in Greenland that scientists thought something must be wrong with their data so they went back and checked. Get this: thermometers on and around the ice showed temperatures as high as 64 degrees Fahrenheit on April 11. That’s more than 35 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, which for that part of the world is more like a warm day in the summer.

Oops. We did that, too. To paraphrase the Pottery Barn rule, “we broke it, we own it.” But now that we own it will we ever own up to it? That’s the really big question, isn’t it?

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Will Alaska Be the New Florida?

The current debate over the proposed construction of the West Dryden Road natural gas pipeline raises a fundamental question: at what point will we acknowledge that we can no longer conduct “business as usual”?

Implicit in this question is another one: what does it actually mean to put this understanding into operation? Are we willing to move in a radically different direction, as uncomfortable and anxiety-producing as that may be? When will we stop saying, “yes, but …” and recognize that the time to act is now?

The County target of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is not just a nice idea; it’s the minimum necessary to avoid runaway climate disruption. If we can’t accomplish this task in Tompkins County, then where in the U.S. will that target be met?

Oroville Lake, California, in 2011 (top) and the same lake in 2014 (bottom).

A New York Times article in late September examined the issue of climate refugees, not in Bangladesh or the South Pacific, but in the United States. At current rates of global warming, one of the climate researchers observed, “Alaska is going to be the next Florida by the end of the century.”

Matthew E. Kahn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Los Angeles, predicts that “millions of people” will be moving inland to cities such as Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit to escape coastal flooding in the East and Gulf Coast. By the middle of this century, California and the Southwest will be experiencing catastrophic water shortages and extreme heat.

Aside from the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska will be among the few refuges left. Even in these places the weather will be dramatically altered. “Summer in Minnesota is projected to be like the climate is in northern Oklahoma – the trees and the forests there, the crops that farmers plant,” according to Thomas C. Peterson, principal scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Climatic Data Center.

We still have time to avoid the worst effects of climate change, but only if we recognize that the decisions we make now will determine whether we do so or not.

A Drought in Common Sense

Thousands of people from across the U.S. marched past the White House on Sunday, February 17, calling on President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline and fracking, and take other steps to fight climate change.The record attendance at the rally in Washington, D.C. highlighted the growing movement in the U.S. among ordinary citizens who sense that the point of no return for runaway climate change is fast approaching.

Coming on the heels of President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he challenged Congress to deal with the issue of climate change, the outpouring of people at the rally was good news indeed. As the president put it, “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

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Parts of the bottom of the Mississippi River appeared during the drought last summer.

Perhaps anticipating the demands of the thousands who would flock to Washington a few days later, President Obama struck an unusually combative tone in his annual address. If Congress refused to act, the president warned. then he would exercise his executive authority “to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Obama will remain true to his word. But all signs indicate that he better do so, for our sake. Just one recent example: reports of a thin snowpack in the western mountains suggest that the High Plains, West, and Southwest are likely to experience a third summer of withering drought.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest three-month drought projections, which the agency released February 21, promises little relief. Forecasters predict that drought will continue in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states, expand throughout northern and southern California and return to most of Texas, which has suffered a severe drought since 2011.

According to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center, the February streamflow forecast predicts a decline in nearly every state and basin in the West. The winter snow season still has two months left, but “if the remaining season turns out dry, water supply conditions could end up in the 50 to 70 percent of average range.”

Those dry conditions and poor snowpack have also increased the risk that the Mississippi River could drop to levels later this year equal to or worse than last fall’s record dip, once again seriously disrupting barge traffic on the nation’s busiest waterway. According to Time magazine, if conditions do not improve soon, “the stoppage could last for months.”

We are fortunate, thanks to the abundance of water in the Finger Lakes region, not to have this kind of severe drought looming on the horizon. But we will not be unaffected by developments west of the Mississippi. One wonders what kind of national economic disaster it will take to finally force Congress to act on climate change, but perhaps the shutdown of a river that sees $180 billion of goods travel along it each year will do the trick.