Alaska is warming at twice the nation’s rate, government report says

Bering Glacier and Miller Ridge, Alaska. Photo by Jamie Buscher.

Alaska is experiencing global warming impacts more severely than any other region of the nation, according to a major science report released by the White House yesterday.

The report says Alaska’s annual summer temperatures have increased 3.4 º F over the past 50 years, more than twice the national average of about 1.5º F. Alaska’s winter temperatures show an even greater increase of 6.3º F over the same time period.

Rising temperatures are already contributing to earlier spring snow melt, reduced sea ice, widespread glacier retreat and permafrost melting, among other impacts, says the report, which pulls together research from 500 existing peer-reviewed studies of observed and projected impacts of global warming.

The report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, predicts Alaska temperatures could rise up to another 13º F in the next 50 years.

“The take-away message from this report is that climate change is happening and it’s starting to cause some serious problems, not just for the environment, but for people,” said Anne Gore, Alaska-based Science Education Manager at The Wilderness Society.

“Immediate action is needed if we’re going to avoid even bigger problems down the road. We must pass climate legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and fund adaptation strategies,” Gore said.

Within Alaska, America’s Arctic is the “most vulnerable of all to the impacts of warming.” Rising temperatures could cause the Arctic Ocean to be without ice during summertime within this century, which would have devastating results for ice-dependent species, such as seals and polar bears.

Report projections say that there will be no wild polar bears left in Alaska in 75 years.

In addition, fisheries in the Bering Sea are already seeing major declines as a result of melting sea ice. These fisheries produce billions of dollars worth of seafood every year.

Current proposals for oil and gas development could add further stress to these already fragile ecosystems.

Chances for survival

Chances of species surviving the changes already underway will depend critically on the rate of continuing change and on what strategies are implemented to help them cope.

Setting aside unfragmented wild places free from human impacts can help minimize extinctions, explained Wendy Loya, a Wilderness Society ecologist in Anchorage.

“One of the most important things we can do to address climate change is create the best possible conditions to help animals, plants, and people adjust. Protecting natural areas and connecting them to each other is one way to do that,” Loya said.

The Wilderness Society is working to help species adapt in Alaska and across the nation. In Alaska, we are campaigning to protect critical wildlife habitat throughout the state and we are working closely with federal land management agencies to apply the most current climate science to future planning for managing Alaska’s natural resources.

The good news from the government’s report is that if we take action to limit global warming pollution immediately, the impacts of climate change could be on the lower end of the projected impact spectrum.

The energy and climate bill now being considered by Congress would limit such emissions and create funding for the natural resource adaptation that Loya says is critical.

Bering Glacier and Miller Ridge, Alaska. Photo by Jamie Buscher.
Polar bear swimming.
Caribou in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Courtesy FWS.