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OPINION: Pace of climate change offers challenge to new Arctic Research Commission members

November 30th, 2012 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

This week, former North Slope Borough Mayor and longtime Arctic leader Edward Itta of Barrow was appointed to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission. The commission was established nearly three decades ago to develop an integrated national Arctic research policy and program and encourage the cooperation of all entities regarding Arctic issues.

When it was founded, this commission probably had a relatively minor role. Today, it stands at the head of a growing list of issues that are absolutely vital to the future of so many, especially rural Alaskans.

News reports this week say researchers watching the rapid thawing of permafrost in the Arctic are more concerned than ever before about the consequences the unprecedented changes there are having on the Earth's climate. They say the higher-than-expected temperatures are melting the permafrost and releasing extraordinary amounts of carbon. Researchers say the planet's permafrost regions — defined as any area where the earth stays frozen for at least two years — hold twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere.

"Permafrost is one of the keys to the planet's future because it contains large stores of frozen organic matter that, if thawed and released into the atmosphere, would amplify current global warming and propel us to a warmer world," said UN Under-Secretary General and United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Achim Steiner in a release. "Its potential impact on the climate, ecosystems and infrastructure has been neglected for too long."

The report highlights the hazards of carbon dioxide and methane emissions, and says that methane released from the permafrost, when added to the permitted emissions released by humans, have not properly been accounted for in current climate change models. The bottom line is that when you add all the carbon being released by the melting Arctic to the emissions released when we drive to work each day or fly to Hawaii for vacation, the combined impact could be more dire than already predicted.

Not that that's any news to a lot of folks. A recent whale observing team with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went looking for gray whales near Point Hope. They didn't find any, but they did find 24 humpback whales, five killer whales, fin whales and a minke whale. The whales, scientists say, where not just venturing up randomly, but were seen feeding. Calves were seen with the whales, leading scientists to believe that the Arctic waters are now being used as habitat for species of whale that have rarely been seen in the area before.

The rapid retreat of sea ice is likely playing a role, and the changes are happening at an unprecedented speed. The difficult part about all of these changes is that science and policy is moving at a much slower speed than the planet is. Everything is changing, and policy leaders, such as those on the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, will have to not only be ready to face that rapid pace and respond to it but also convince others — such as elected officials in charge of setting climate-change related policies — to do the same.

The report released by the UN Environment Program states as much, calling for new assessments of permafrost and the creation of national monitoring networks and adaptation plans to deal with potential impacts from this source of emissions, which is certain to be a major factor in global warming.

"This report seeks to communicate to climate-treaty negotiators, policy makers and the general public the implications of continuing to ignore the challenges of warming permafrost," said Steiner.

Up in the U.S. Arctic, it's ground zero for much of these changes. Communities are already seeing changes, and not only in the kinds of whales swimming in the waters, but in the land on which their communities are constructed. According to the report, climate change could add up to a $6.1 billion future cost for public infrastructure in Alaska between now and 2030.

"Thawing permafrost represents a dramatic physical change with huge impacts to ecosystems and human infrastructure," said lead author Kevin Schaefer, from the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center. "Individual nations need to develop plans to evaluate the risks, costs, and mitigation strategies to protect human infrastructure in permafrost regions most vulnerable to thaw."

In Alaska, much of the push called for by this report will fall on the shoulders of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission, which is chaired by former Alaska Lieutenant Governor and University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Fran Ulmer.

Itta, Ulmer and the other members of this vital commission must push for officials to pay attention to an issue for which we have no frame of reference — no one has ever experienced changes on the scale that we are experiencing them now, and even the most knowledgable scientific studies seem to be underestimating the speed at which change is occurring. Getting people to apply attention — and even more problematic, money — to an issue as seemingly theoretical as climate change is going to be a challenge.

Itta has demonstrated through the years of leadership in the north that he is capable of the kind of adaptation and responsiveness necessary to advocate effectively for the communities of the Arctic and the state of Alaska as climate change impacts us all on a more immediate basis. He also commands respect, a necessary trait that has allowed him to navigate some difficult transitions as the Arctic balances its subsistence needs with ever-expanding development and resource extraction.

Let's hope those traits are enough to allow Itta and others on the commission to communicate to others in the nation and the world that the changes happening today are extreme and require immediate attention.


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