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Melting glaciers, Alaskan wildfires and what they mean for the globe

Don Paul

On a just-completed trip to Glacier National Park in northern Montana, I snapped this picture of the largest remaining glacier in the park, Jackson. This was a vacation journey to one of our most beautiful national parks, which remains stunning. As many of you might suspect, the park’s glaciers are shrinking, as are the majority of the world’s glaciers.

When the park opened in 1910, it contained more than 100 glaciers. Now, 26 remain and all 26 are shrinking due to a warming climate brought on by human activity.

In April, I wrote of glacial ice mass loss on a global basis. In researching that article, I found I had been underestimating glacial ice melt’s contribution to rising sea levels.

The reduction in ice mass at Glacier National Park has made some minor contributions to sea level rise, though drainage is relatively minor compared to Alaska, Greenland and Antarctica meltwaters. As a point of interest, the park’s waters drain to the Pacific west of the continental divide in the park, the Atlantic to the east and Hudson Bay to the north.

The park is a national treasure and will remain so even as ice mass is lost. The glaciers are going to continue to shrink, make no mistake. But they are not going to vanish in the next few years, though that part of the park’s splendor will be lessening. The park remains a haven for hiking, biking, boating, climbing and fishing with fantastic geologic features and magnificent scenery. Here is an excellent link with photos on the state and future of the park’s glaciers from the National Park Service.

In the meantime, this summer continues as a time of climate crisis in the high latitudes. Arctic sea ice melt is on track for a record low by late summer, as it is already at a record low for this time of the warm season. Wildfires rage in countless locations, with more than 32 million acres of forest lost in Siberia as of Friday, producing choking smoke for millions there. The soot from the fires is settling on the sea ice, making it less reflective and more heat absorptive.

Alaska’s temperatures have been “off the charts” with the state’s mean temperature running above average for more than 100 consecutive days, since April 25th. Over the past century, Alaska has warmed 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which is more than double the global average.

Brian Brettschneider, a research climatologist affiliated with the University of Alaska, reports the record heat has also raised sea surface temperatures to their highest levels on record. This, in turn, keeps temperatures warmer in a feedback cycle, and has even led to unusual high humidity through evaporation closer to the coasts. Anchorage, which sits on cold Cook Inlet, hit 90 for the first time this summer. Despite the high humidity near the coastal zones, wildfires rage inland.

Mark Parrington, a senior scientist with the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service in Europe, told the Washington Post the global high latitude wildfires had emitted 125 metric megatons of carbon dioxide through late July. This is the highest total since monitoring began in 2003 and, again, adds to the carbon feedback cycle. The fires are linked to the warming climate, which is linked to human activity, and then emit even more carbon, which produces more warming … and so it goes.

The early retreat of ice from the Bering and Chukchi seas has upended the lives of residents who depend on the presence of ice for hunting and fishing, and has caused widespread disruption for wildlife.

In other ongoing feedback mechanisms, after fires flare up they often go into a smoldering phase, with heat penetrating deep soils and releasing still more stored carbon. Parts of inland Alaska are very dry as well as hot, and the layer of lichen on the tundra provides ample fuel for new ignitions, more melting of permafrost, and more release of stored carbon and methane. This greenhouse gas load addition enhances already critical warming and speeds the whole process up.

Warm seas are killing many thousands of salmon, which cannot find enough dissolved oxygen in the abnormally warm water. NOAA, which regulates fisheries, reports Alaska supplies more than half of all fish caught in U.S. waters, with a value of $4.5 billion. More Alaskans are employed in fishing and fisheries than in any other industry, according to Brettschneider. A minor coin flip: a few Pacific cod migrated north and have been showing up in crab nets near Nome, where they are rarely seen. And, a few lakes have become warm enough for some Alaskans and tourists to take a dip to gain relief from the uncommon heat. Many Alaskan buildings are understandably designed to trap heat, and have been stifling on summer nights.

For the longer term, University of Alaska climate scientists have been in the vanguard of high latitude climate change studies, aiming research toward a better understanding of the accelerated warming and its impacts. But this spring, Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy announced massive cuts in education funding, including a 41% reduction in the University of Alaska budget (with all the position cuts such a reduction entails). This means a significant number of these world-class scientists face the prospect of having to leave Alaska when they are needed most. The state’s budget shortfall is $1.6 billion, partly tied to maintaining the Permanent Fund by which residents are paid a yearly sum as a return on the state’s oil investments.

While next year may or may not precisely match this year’s level of warming, the overall trend is dictated by the physics generated by human activity. It can be mitigated, but it cannot be reversed in the foreseeable future.

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