The Arctic Is Speaking Truths About Climate Change. Is Anyone Listening?

The tugs Corbin Foss, Ocean Wave and Lauren Foss begin the tow of the Royal Dutch Shell conical drilling unit Kulluk from Kiliuda Bay near Kodiak Island, Alaska, Feb. 26, 2013. (Photo: DoD/flickr/cc)

The Arctic Is Speaking Truths About Climate Change. Is Anyone Listening?

The Arctic is screaming. Can you hear her in the floods of Houston, the drought in California and the epic snowfall in Boston this past winter? In Alaska, the only Arctic state in the United States, it was a record-smashing 89 degrees in Anchorage at 6:30 at night on June 15, 2015, one of several 80 degree days. Historically, June temperatures fluctuate between the mid-60s to mid-70s. Currently, 238 wildfires, burning 408 square miles, are forcing the evacuation of residents in several communities. Fifty-seven new fires ignited on June 22.

Our collective failure to limit greenhouse gas emissions has pushed atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide -- the primary driver of climate change -- to levels not seen for millions of years, when the Earth did not support human life. These increases are causing significant changes in the Earth system and most profoundly in the Arctic. In the last half-century, Alaska and the Arctic have warmed twice as fast as the global average.

In Alaska, record-breaking high temperatures, lack of snowfall and decreased Arctic sea ice are colliding to accelerate dramatic environmental changes. In 2014, plants grew in January in Anchorage during a 10-day warm spell when temperatures hovered in the 40s and reached 50 degrees on January 27. In August 2014 children swam in the frigid Chukchi Sea, north of the Arctic Circle, to get relief from a heat wave. Winter snows have shifted to winter rains.

This past year was the lowest snow season on record in Anchorage, with no snowfall accumulation over four inches. February's record-breaking temperatures in the 40s was followed in March, when snow covered the ground for only the first five days of the month -- that snow cover was less than an inch when 10-13 inches of snow typically covers the city. Gardeners who traditionally wait until Memorial Day weekend, planted as early as April. May was the hottest on record and hovered in the 70s in Anchorage and the 90s further north -- reaching this temperature earlier than Atlanta Georgia. In Barrow, perched on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, temperatures soared for three consecutive days, including a record high on May 19 that was eight degrees above the previous daily record set in 2009. To the south in Fairbanks, temperatures reached 86 degrees, breaking the old daily record by six degrees.

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Arctic sea ice is also rapidly diminishing. Historically, Arctic sea ice reaches its maximum extent in March, but in 2015, Arctic sea ice was at its lowest maximum extent since record keeping began in 1979. In the past four decades, Arctic sea ice has decreased 40 percent, with projections that it will disappear entirely during summer within the next 30 years or less. This is bringing catastrophic consequences to the communities, cultures and wildlife of the region.

And, ultimately, to those beyond the Arctic, as these changes impact the polar jet stream and contribute to the extreme weather occurring in lower latitudes, such as Hurricane Sandy in New York in 2012, the 2015 blizzards in Boston, Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013, and Cyclone Pam in 2015 in Vanuatu -- which wiped out that island nation in the South Pacific with sustained winds of 155 mph.

Despite the vast differences in wealth, development and technological and organizational resources, no country in the world has yet been able to adapt to these weather furies. What place in the world currently has the capacity to withstand 155 mph sustained winds? A focus on adaptation efforts is urgently needed to reduce the death, damage and destruction caused by extreme weather events

But extreme weather events are not the only environmental events challenging our ability to adapt to climate change. Accelerating rates of erosion, caused by permafrost thawing and decreased Arctic sea ice, are threatening the infrastructure and the very lives of residents of many coastal communities in Alaska. Situations are so dire that several indigenous communities have decided that the relocation of their entire village is their only viable long-term adaptation strategy. State and federal government officials concur, but not a single community has yet relocated, placing residents in extreme danger from autumn storms when hurricane-force winds batter Alaska's western coast. Only one rural Alaskan village, Newtok, is in a relocation process. The lack of a governance framework -- including the policies and protocols to determine when and how a community needs to relocate -- has been a major barrier. No federal or state government agency in the United States has the mandate or funding to relocate communities.

The issue of relocation is not isolated to Alaska but also impacts millions of people residing in low-lying coastal areas around the world. No relocation institutional framework exists anywhere in the world. Yet the land on which people live and maintain livelihoods will permanently disappear, swallowed by rising sea levels.

In an impressive display of the schizophrenic approach that characterizes much government response to climate change these days, the Obama Administration has simultaneously made Climate Resilience and Preparedness a priority, while also granting a permit to Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic. Scientists have made it clear that at least half of the world's reserves of coal and oil needs to "stay in the ground" if we are to avoid the most catastrophic warming scenarios. Drilling in the Arctic is a "climate breaker." So I have to ask again: Is anyone listening to the Arctic? I hope so.

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