In recent decades, climate change has become a cause for concern across the world. The rise in global temperatures and concomitant rise in sea levels is a major threat to people living on the coast, particularly in poorer countries with high poverty and less-developed infrastructure. While most are vaguely aware about the effects of climate change in Alaska, the dangers of rising sea levels pose a greater threat than mere melted glaciers and drowning polar bears.
Regardless of what has caused it, climate change poses a major challenge for Alaska and other regions in or near the Arctic. Read on to learn about the effects that climate change has and will continue to have on Alaska.
Climate Change and Alaska
The rise in global sea levels is a direct result of climate change and its effects on Alaska. Melting icebergs and glaciers have caused the level of oceans around the world to rise due to a greater volume of water, which has accelerated the erosion of coastlines and caused low-altitude land to become submerged. One positive side effect of this process is that the Arctic Ocean and northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans have become safer to navigate due to the reduced chance of colliding with an iceberg.
Global warming has a larger effect on Alaska and the North Pole than the rest of the world due to the phenomenon of Arctic amplification. This process is created by ice-albedo feedback, a phenomenon in which melting ice in the Arctic causes darker land or ocean underneath to become exposed. Because darker-colored materials absorb heat more rapidly than lighter-colored ones, this freshly-exposed ground or water absorbs more sunlight, further accelerating global warming. Some scientists believe that Arctic amplification could cause an exponential rate of increase in global warming to the point where humans would be unable to stop it.
The sudden decrease in Arctic ice is a cause for concern among climatologists. Estimates suggest that Arctic ice coverage declined by three percent between the years of 1979 and 1996. Additionally, summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has been declining at an accelerated rate over the past few years. It is believed that summer sea ice in the Arctic will be nonexistent by 2100, though more dramatic estimates suggest that summer ice could be completely gone as soon as 2030. The thawing of Arctic permafrost in northern Alaska also results in an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which will further accelerate global warming due to more heat being trapped in the air.
Climate change has already brought significant changes to the Alaskan ecosystem. One major example of this is in tree growth. Ordinarily, trees cannot grow north of the tree line, a line across Alaska and the Arctic Circle where permafrost and cold weather make it impossible for trees to take root or get necessary nutrition. Scientists have observed that the tree line is moving north, and areas that were previously grassy tundra are being taken over by new trees. Additionally, boreal forests in the southern Arctic are “browning” due to global warming-related droughts and wildfires.
Alaskan wildlife has also been significantly affected by global warming. Increasing temperatures in the Arctic have allowed species from further south to migrate north, which could potentially cause long-term damage to the local ecological balance. Scientists have witnessed interbreeding between Arctic and non-Arctic species, and polar bears, who make their habitats atop sea ice, have been particularly harmed by the shrinking of glaciers and icebergs. In 2007, the National Wildlife Federation began a campaign to get the U.S. government to acknowledge polar bears as endangered.
However, changes due to global warming are not all negative. The melting of icebergs in the Arctic Ocean has made it safer for ships to traverse these waters, opening up new trade routes and means to ship goods across continents. The Northwest Passage, a fabled all-water route connecting Europe and Asia via North America, has become a reality due to the collapse in sea ice levels and improved ship technology. The shrinkage of sea ice has also made exploiting deposits of oil and natural gas in the Arctic more economically feasible. These factors have led to increased geopolitical tensions as Canada, Russia, the U.S., Norway, and Denmark jostle for control over the Arctic’s riches and trade routes.
One well-known Arctic Ocean project is the Arctic Bridge, a sea route that will connect the Russian port city of Murmansk to the Canadian city of Churchill, located in Manitoba along the Hudson Bay. As part of its mission to secure control of the Arctic, Canada has declared much of the Arctic Ocean to be its internal waters, allowing the country to regulate who is allowed to enter and use its resources. The U.S. argues that the Arctic Ocean is international territory and that Canada’s actions are in violation of international law.
Finally, global warming has caused significant change to the lives of indigenous peoples in the Arctic Circle. The Inuit and other Arctic peoples are reliant on fishing, hunting, and other activities that can easily be disrupted by changes to the planet’s ecology. Many species of the Arctic could potentially become extinct in the future, as rising temperatures erode natural habitats. Global warming has also disrupted traditional means of travel for indigenous peoples, as ice roads and other routes are no longer usable due to rising sea levels.
World governments who possess Arctic territory, including the U.S., have sought to remedy the worst effects of climate change in a number of different ways. However, significant action is stymied by the fact that decreasing sea ice in the Arctic stands to benefit commercial interests through the opening of new shipping lanes as well as the exploitation of natural resources. It is likely that geopolitical tensions over the Arctic will increase in the coming years as national governments seek to claim their share of Arctic treasure.
Regardless of what you think about climate change, it is obvious that changing world temperatures are having a large impact on life in Alaska. The continuous rise in sea levels caused by melting icebergs and glaciers has already caused a significant number of changes in geography, ecology, and the atmosphere, and it is clear that these changes will continue if current climate trends hold. It is clear that climate change will have permanent, devastating effects on Alaska and other places within the Arctic.