NOSB paper

This paper was written as part of the 2005 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

The Effects of Climate Change on Cordova, Alaska on the Prince William Sound

Authors

Leif Stavig
Lee Collins
Christopher Hager
Mckenzie Herring
Ezekiel Brown
Elizabeth Locklar

 

Team N.U.R.D.s
Cordova Junior/Senior High School
PO Box 140
100 Fisherman Ave.
Cordova, AK 99574


Cordova N.U.R.D.s team photo

Abstract

This paper will examine the effects of climate change on Cordova, Alaska. Climate prediction models estimate a 10% decrease in precipitation and a 2-3 degrees C temperature increase in 50 years, and 4-6 degree C increase in 100 years for Prince William Sound. This temperature change will cause the glaciers to rapidly recede, initially causing a large influx of freshwater. After 100 years, glaciers will have receded completely causing an overall decline in freshwater input. The large volume of freshwater discharging into Prince William Sound drives the local and regional ocean circulation. The initial influx of freshwater causes a stronger current of nutrient rich water to flow along the coast. Once the glaciers completely recede the freshwater input will be gone, and the circulation patterns will change. These changes in ocean circulation will affect intertidal and subtidal organisms that are important to the surrounding ecosystem. In particular, eelgrass and mussels will be affected by the change in water level, temperature, and salinity. The loss of eel grass will also affect the salmon population because juvenile salmon use the eelgrass for protection from predators and rough water. Full glacial recession will cause a loss in salmon spawning habitat. Increase in water and air temperature will decrease water levels enough to make stream habitats unsuitable for spawning. These negative influences on salmon have a direct effect on Cordova's economy, which is dependent on the salmon industry. It will also affect the subsistence lifestyle in Cordova, and the tourism industry will also decline. Climate change affects such as a rise in water level, increase in water and air temperatures and changes in ocean circulation will affect the birds of this region including the common murre, marbled murrelet, the blacklegged kittiwake, and migratory shorebirds.

Introduction

Global climate change is the warming of the atmosphere by emissions of greenhouse gases. As the levels of gases such as carbon dioxide and water vapor increase more solar radiation is trapped in the atmosphere (Berner, 2004). Climate change is a bigger issue in the northern latitudes. With the melting of glaciers, more land is exposed. This allows more of the sun's energy to be absorbed, causing glaciers to melt faster, thereby increasing the air temperature. The topic of global climate change has been researched for many years because it is important to know the effects it will have on the environment and human resources. This paper will present the effects climate change could have on Cordova, a small fishing community located on the Prince William Sound (Fig. 1).

Local Climate

Atmospheric changes and local meteorological patterns affect the climate and ecosystem health of Prince William Sound. A rise in temperature of the air and water will alter the environment. For example, glaciers will start to melt more rapidly, and in the next 100 years all or most of the glaciers in the Prince William Sound area will be gone (Ashe, 2004). Without glaciers to supply freshwater, rivers water level will be significantly affected. Altering pressure systems will change the amount of precipitation an area gets, affecting the hydrological cycle, in which water is recycled from the ocean to the land (Fig. 1). From land, the water evaporates, runs off in rivers, or seeps in the ground (Brown et al., 1989). Prince William Sound is unique because of high annual precipitation, and steep watersheds that quickly drain their supply of freshwater except in winter when precipitation is in the form of snow not allowing it to run off as fast. Part of this watershed is the small town of Cordova. Cordova get an average of 160 inches of precipitation per year, 80 inches of it being snow, with an average temperature between 40-68 degrees Fahrenheit. These watersheds rely on freshwater input from precipitation, and glaciers to maintain river discharges. Currently all of the glaciers in the area around Prince William Sound are receding, even with the input of snow by precipitation. On a global scale, it is estimated that if all the glaciers and ice sheets were to melt and the entire ocean would raise an average of 65 m (213 ft). Even a relatively small 1 m rise would threaten half of the world's populations (Ahrens, 2003).

The Prince William Sound Science Center (PWSSC), Alaska Experimental Forecast Facility (AEFF) and the Oil Spill recovery Institute (OSRI) are studying climate change in the Prince William Sound area (Schoch, 2004b). The Canadian Meteorological Service runs computer models to predict the changes in the environment. Computer modeling can demonstrate what would happen over a time period by inputting the increase in temperature. The Canadian model predicts the changes on a global scale, so it is difficult to gain an understanding of small–scale effects in specific regions of the world. A drawback of computer models is that they can't predict or incorporate unusual atmospheric events that could also alter the climate.

PWSSC and OSRI are currently working on a Prince William Sound observation system that monitors the weather and ocean circulation at buoys located in the sound. The observation system provides data that can aid computer models. (Schoch, 2004a)

Dr. Peter Olsson, Alaska State Climatologist, operates the Regional Atmospheric Modeling System (RAMS), at AEFF. Dr. Olsson ran a model of the 24–hour accumulation of precipitation in Prince William Sound. He did this for two cases, one where the surface temperature was 0 degrees Celsius and one where the surface temperature was 3 degrees Celsius.

Results from the Canadian Global Climate Model (CGCM) for Alaska show a rise in temperature of 2–3 degrees Celsius over the next 50 years (CGCM). As the warming continues into the future, the rise in temperature keeps climbing. It is predicted that in the next 100 years there will be a 4–6 degree Celsius temperature increase (CGCM). The model also predicts that a 10% decrease in precipitation will occur by 2100 on the southern coast of Alaska (USGCRP). With 10% less precipitation there will be longer dry seasons and maybe even no snow in the winter. With such a high rise in temperature, the precipitation will be rain, so there won't be any snow to rebuild glaciers.

Results from the RAMS model show that there will be some variability of the weather in Prince William Sound. The model was run with a simulated south wind of 1 m/s. This resulted in an increase of precipitation at lower elevations with less precipitation up in the highest terrain. The precipitation that fell at lower elevations would likely be rain because of the rise in temperature. At the higher elevations, where snow rather than rain would be expected, (temperature decreases with height) there will be less snowfall. Since the higher areas are the accumulation zones for the glaciers, this would suggest that the glaciers will shrink even faster under a warming scenario because of both warming (more melting) and less precipitation at the higher elevations where the snow making the glaciers originates. (Olsson, Pers. Comm.)

With the information from computer models it shows that Prince William Sound will have an increase of precipitation at lower elevations where it will be a source for rivers. Glaciers will start to melt faster and have less snow to rebuild them. Since glaciers are also a source of freshwater for rivers an increase in melting rates will initially cause water levels in rivers to increase, until the glaciers are completely gone. When this happens rivers will lose their input from glacial sources. This will cause rivers to have a drop in water level or even dry up. Rivers will still have precipitation as a source but during the summer when glacial runoff buffers the river freshwater supply there will be no input for rivers.

Ocean Circulation

In the Gulf of Alaska the large scale circulation is generally counterclockwise. This circulation results from the winter winds associated with low pressure systems that move into the Gulf. These cyclonic winds tend to move water in a circular gyre around the Gulf of Alaska. The high rates of precipitation cause a strong westward flowing coastal current called the Alaskan Coastal Current, (Fig. 3). Some of this coastal current drives part of the Prince William Sound's circulation. This current is believed to enter PWS through Hinchinbrook Entrance and exit through Montague Strait. (Okkonen a, Pers. Comm.)

Prince William Sound can be considered an estuary because of the large amounts of freshwater entering from glaciers, rivers, and precipitation. This mixing of freshwater and saltwater makes Prince William Sound a very diverse environment. The balance of freshwater and saltwater directly affects the organisms that live in Prince William Sound. (Pinet, 2003)

The currents in Prince William Sound are complex and always changing. Currents are driven primarily by three natural influences: wind, fresh water input, and tides (Schoch, 2004b). The wind driven circulation is typically strongest in the winter, and weakest in the summer (Fig. 4). Freshwater input into PWS by the melting glaciers and abundance of rain also helps drive the current. Freshwater driven circulation is usually strongest in the summer (melting glaciers), and weakest in the winter (cold weather). Not only does the freshwater create a stronger current, it forms fronts between the less dense, low salinity water and more dense, higher salinity water. These fronts concentrate nutrients and many organisms. The freshwater also helps drive coastal upwelling near fronts, making much of PWS's water nutrient rich (Okkonen a, Pers. Comm.). Additionally, there is a counterclockwise, cyclonic circulation in PWS (Fig. 5), which is also driven by freshwater input, therefore making it strongest in the summer and weaker in the winter (Okkonen a, Pers. Comm.).

In the next 50 years, because of the rising atmospheric temperatures, most glaciers will begin to melt even faster than they are today. Because of this, there will be an increased flow of freshwater into the Sound, causing the freshwater circulation to become stronger, and more consistent throughout the whole year, rather than being strongest in the summer. This will initially cause increased upwelling and stronger fronts, which would be beneficial to the organisms living in the Sound. (Okkonen b, Pers. Comm.)

However, the freshwater supply from the glaciers will stop when the glaciers are gone as predicted in 100 years. The loss of glacial runoff and decrease in precipitation will make the freshwater circulation very weak. This will cause little upwelling and weak fronts. In addition the current will be mostly wind driven, causing the most favorable conditions in the winter. This, and the rise in air and water temperatures will make the environment of the Sound very different, affecting the organisms that are living and feeding there. (Okkonen b, Pers. Comm.)

Intertidal

These changes in ocean circulation, precipitation and temperature will affect all organisms living in the intertidal zones. In order to demonstrate some of the effects that climate change will have on the intertidal zone of Prince William Sound, we focused on the dominant animal of the intertidal zone, mussels (Mytilus trossulus) and the dominant plant, eelgrass (Zostera marina).

Mussel beds are very important as a habitat and they provide food and protection for many animals. They live at one of the highest levels of the intertidal zone to escape predation from sea stars and because there is not as much competition for food and space. When mussels reproduce, their young can remain in a plankton stage for several weeks before settling and attaching to a solid substrate. The planktonic larvae find existing mussel beds by tracing a chemical released by adult mussels allowing them to settle where other mussel beds already have been established. (Schoch, 2004c)

Mussels are very susceptible to warmer weather because they acquire heat from the air when exposed to it. If the air is too warm and they are exposed to it for prolonged periods of time they will overheat and die (Helmuth, 2002). This can be shown by looking at two pictures taken during and after the La Nina storm cycle. During the La Nina storm cycle, waves were washed higher up on shore allowing the mussel larvae to wash up and grow further up on the beach (Fig. 6a). After the La Nina stormy period was over the waves lowered again causing the mussels to be exposed to the air longer, the heat caused thermal stress, and killed off the mussel population (Fig. 6b). (Schoch, 2004c)

Eelgrass plays an important role in Prince William Sound's ecosystem as a habitat for small fish, juvenile salmon, pollock, and many invertebrates such as crabs and shrimp (Schoch, 2004b). About 30–35% of the coastline is lined with eelgrass beds (Saupe, 2004) (Fig. 7). Because it is an important habitat for salmon, eelgrass is very important to Cordova because Cordova's economy is based on its salmon fishery. Eelgrass is a tall flowering plant with many thin leaves. There are many small algae that live on these leaves and form the base of the food chain in these zones. Also because of the long leaves, eelgrass forms a good area for animals to hide in from larger predators, so a fish, such as a juvenile salmon, can use an eelgrass bed as a source of food and protection (Kozloff, 1993).

Raised levels of dissolved CO2 in the water will increase photosynthesis of eelgrass. This increase will also help the algae that is attached to eelgrass grow more rapidly and this could create competition for sunlight for eelgrass and could restrict the growth of it. (Seaweb, 2004)

Eelgrass populations will also be affected by a large influx of fresh water into the ocean. The reason for this large amount of fresh water is because glaciers will be melting due to the changes in precipitation and temperature over the next 50 years. This large amount of fresh water will lower the salinity of the Sound, which will damage eelgrass populations due to their inability to cope with a low amount of salinity (Schoch, 2004c).

Salmon

Salmon are an example of an organism that can be affected by both changes in intertidal species as well as being directly affected by climate change. Through the years, it has been shown that salmon population can change very abruptly from low stocks to high stocks. This change can be accredited to climate change with changes in plankton populations, water levels and water temperature directly affecting salmon stocks.

Scientists have discovered correlations in the climate patterns and salmon stocks. They have used this correlation to develop indices that relate climate changes to salmon stocks. There are several different indices that all show the same pattern (Fig. 8). Figure 8 shows three different indices along with the total salmon catch. The fourth line represents the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which relates changes in sea surface temperature, precipitation, and river discharge to salmon abundance. This is important in measuring future salmon stocks because salmon are affected by all of these factors. (Beamish, 1999)

Scientists have come to the conclusion that there have been four different climate periods in the past century. They alternate between cool/wet and warm/dry periods that correspond to the total salmon fish catches. During the warm/dry periods, similar to climate changes expected in Prince William Sound in 50 years, there was increased salmon production because of increased plankton production. Within a hundred years, with the expected glacier recession, there is expected to be less upwelling and therefore less food for salmon populations. (Anderson, 1997)

With a rise in air temperature glaciers will begin to melt faster, increasing the fresh water flow into rivers. When glaciers have receded river water levels will drop. With less water in the rivers salmon will be unable to reach their spawning grounds. Salmon begin showing stress at 18 degrees C (Cooney, 2004). In Cordova the water temperature will also increase with the increase in air temperature. This was exhibited in southeast Alaska during summer of 2004. Salmon were unable to enter many rivers because of high water temperature, with some rivers reaching as high as 82 degrees F.

Socioeconomics of Cordova

Cordova, Alaska is a coastal town supported mainly by the hardworking commercial fishing fleet as well as a small tourism industry. Despite being a small town of 2,454 in winter, and around 5000 in summer, it is home to one of the most productive fisheries in Alaska (PWS Economic Data, 2003). Nearly half of the population works in the fishing industry (Kopchak and Adams, 2001). In the year 2004, 654 permits were fished in the salmon industry alone, which typically brings in 30-40 million dollars annually (Fig. 9 Ashe, 2004). Subsistence harvest plays a large role in Cordova, with 98% of the residents using some product of subsistence such as berries, deer, fish, bear, moose, and birds. Eighty–nine percent of the residents harvest salmon for subsistence use.

Cordova also has a fast-rising tourism industry and currently tourism accounts for 19% of the jobs in the community (Community Economic Assessment, 2002). In the year of 1997 tourist expenditures were around 5.7 million dollars (Kopchak and Adams, 2001).

Since Cordova's economy runs on the money brought in by the local fishing fleet and processors, if something happens to hinder the fishing industry, such as climate change, it directly affects Cordova. To keep the fishing industry going, Fish and Game is letting 300,000–500,000 fish up river to spawn in hopes of a large recruitment (Ashe, 2004). Recruitments are the number of juveniles that make it pass the spawning grounds and out to the ocean. Fish and Game is currently regulating the amount of fish for commercial use, and they set an escapement goal every season that they have to meet. The escapement goal is a certain amount of fish they want to go up river, and if that number is not being met then they close the fisheries down.

If the glaciers recede like predicted there will be a loss of crucial spawning ground due to no fresh–water influx on the Delta. Even with high precipitation, the evaporation rate will be so much higher because of the increase in air temperature, and the rivers will still have too low of a water level to sustain salmon. The warming of the water temperature will cause the heat sensitive fry and juveniles to "cook" or die (Ashe, 2004). If there aren't enough recruitments because of a loss of spawning grounds, Fish and Game will have to increase the amount they let up river. This means they will need more fish, but with a smaller amount of fish surviving it will be harder to replenish the failing recruitments and meet the escapement goal, resulting in the fisheries being closed permanently. With the loss of returning fish not only will the commercial harvest decrease, but the availability of important subsistence products will decline.

Tourism will also be affected by climate change. Tourism money mainly comes in from the people sightseeing glaciers on the Copper River Delta, and sport fishermen/hunters. With the 10% decrease in precipitation due to climate change, it would seem that Cordova would become more popular because of an increase in the "good days" of weather. However with the recession of the glaciers there is also a recession in the sightseers of Cordova. The glaciers of Alaska are one of the most popular sights for travelers to see as well as being fundamental to other activities popular to tourists. The loss of glacial water will result in fewer rafting and boating opportunities, as well as less suitable habitat for animals such as moose, swans, shorebirds and other animals that attract out of town, money spending tourists.

Other potential problems

Salmon are not the only organisms that will be affected by global climate change. Cordova and the Prince William Sound are important habitats for seabirds and migratory shorebirds. These birds include the common murre, the marbled murrelet, the blacklegged kittiwake, and the western sandpiper. They use the Prince William Sound for nesting and they rely on it for food.

With climate change the sea level will rise, the atmospheric and ocean temperatures will increase and the distribution of food for these birds will change (Bering Sea Impact Study, 2004). The common murre and the blacklegged kittiwake are both community nesters and depend on the cliffs to nest. When the sea level rises they will both lose low laying nests in large numbers because individuals nest so close to each other (Earth Crash Earth Spirit, 2004). They will also be affected by changes in sea surface temperature, which will change the distribution of their food moving it further away or closer to their breeding areas (Bering Sea Impact Study, 2004).

The marbled murrelet nests in old growth forests so climate change affects them differently compared to other birds. Changes in air temperature can dry out the old growth forests they nest in and put the forests at higher risk of catching fire (Sustainable Ecosystems Insititute, 2004). Climate change also changes the distribution of food in the ocean, so the marbled murrelet will follow its food source wherever it goes. (oceanlink.net, 2004).

Shore birds use the Copper River Delta in Cordova as a major stopover in their migration. The shore birds are important to the economy of Cordova because while they are here the town gets a lot of money from the tourists that come to study them. Sea level rising will cover up the mud flats the shore birds use as a major feeding area. If the mudflats are covered up they will not have the chance to rest and eat so they can get the energy they need to finish their migration (US Forest Service, 2004).

Conclusion

Climate change is a very real problem and requires our attention. At an international level, there have been two treaties addressing greenhouse gases and CFC emissions by many countries to lower the amount of green house gasses being emitted. (Close-up foundation. 2004)

The Montreal Protocol was started by the United Nations in 1989 out of concern about the depletion of the ozone the earth's protective barrier. 183 nations have agreed to it since then to reduce further damage to the ozone, by reducing the amount of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) released into the atmosphere. (Close–up foundation. 2004)

The Kyoto Protocol first came into being in 1997 when 160 nations met in Kyoto Japan to discuss global climate change. These nations decided to make an international attempt to try to slow global climate change by lowering emissions of six green house gases, the main one of these being carbon dioxide. The treaty states that once a country signs the Protocol, it will reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels. In 2004, the 84 th signature was added by Russian president Vladimir Putin (CNN, 2004).

In order to keep reducing green house gases at the international level, we need to get more countries to sign the Montreal and Kyoto protocols. According to the White House signing on to the Kyoto Protocol would cost America nearly 400 billion dollars and nearly five million jobs. In order to get more countries involved we need to get the governments of countries to realize that the short term effects of lowering emissions of green house gases are not nearly as devastating as the long term effects of climate change.

The United States economy is going to be affected by climate change. The US is responsible for about 20% of the world's green house gas emissions, yet the US is not taking steps to reduce overall emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency has established stricter regulations on gas consumptions in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (EPA, 2004). In order for the US to begin reducing its output of greenhouse gases people need to become fully aware of the effects of climate change. People must then become active in getting the government involved. Once the government realizes that there is a large portion of the population that is concerned about climate change, there will be more pressures on legislators to restrict the release of green house gases.

The state of Alaska is going to be greatly affected by climate change, especially because of its location in the northern latitudes. However there are not many regulations instate to lower emissions of green house gases. One thing Alaska is doing is requiring carbon gas emission tests on vehicles because carbon monoxide has harmful effects on human health. However, even though there is a general acknowledgement only a few of Alaska's cities are participating. State representative Don Young is aware of climate change but he does not believe that there is anything that could be done (Linden, KTUU, 2004).

In Cordova, climate change will have a major impact on our economy. Knowing this Cordova should begin to take some action and decide what should be done within the town. According to Nancy Bird, a member of the Cordova City Council, "There have been no actions taken or proposed to lower emissions for greenhouse gases."

In order to show these changes to our way of life, people need to understand what these changes are and how these changes come to be. If local citizens become concerned, Cordova's government will become interested in addressing these problems. This may mean restricting emissions through vehicle and boat inspections such as the ones that are conducted in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Ways to get the community aware of climate change and its affects on Cordova are through giving out pamphlets, giving presentations to the public and through commercials. Funding would come from organizations whose main priority is protecting the environment. Our suggestions for further study in the Prince William Sound include measuring freshwater input in the Sound and where it comes from. In our studies the predicted outcomes are greatly influenced by the amounts of freshwater. Our information was based on the knowledge that freshwater enters the system by melting glaciers, in order to know the full impact it would be important to know the exact amounts inputted from every source. More research on intertidal salinity would be beneficial to test the range or tolerance of organisms and how they will be affected, and in turn affect the surrounding ecosystem. We could use grants from the National Science Foundation, NOAA, and the Alaska Ocean Observing System to finance the research.

Figures

Figure 1.

Figure 1

Location of Cordova.


Figure 2.

Figure 2

A display of the Hydrologic Cycle; Seawater is evaporated and precipitates over the water or on land (http://www.advancedh2o.com/technical/hydrologic_cycle.html)


Figure 3.

Figure 3

This is a satellite image showing the northern Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound . The boxed area shows the current going west along the Alaskan coast. (http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/viewrecord?25795)


Figure 4.

Figure 4

This chart shows average wind speed over a seven year period at buoy 46060 in West Orca Bay, 36 nautical miles South Southwest of Valdez. The winds are highest in winter and lowest in the summer. (http://www.ndbc.noaa.gov/images/climplot/46060_ws.jpg)


Figure 5.

Figure 5

This map shows the trajectories of several argospheres released into the sound during August. Also displayed is Hinchinbrook Entrance and Montague Strait.


Figure 6a.

Figure 6a

Shows large populations of mussels as of 1999 with no signs of thermal stress from prolonged exposure. (Carl Schoch)

Figure 6b.

Figure 6b

Shows same ledge as in Figure 6a one year later, only all mussels that were in Figure 6a died due to thermal stress. (Carl Schoch)


Figure 7

Figure 7

Shows eel grass populations over part of Prince William Sound as found in a study conducted by John Harper. (John Harper Shorezone Mapping Project in PWS funded by the PWS RCAC)


Figure 8

Figure 8

Demonstrates several different indexes and the total salmon catch. (Richard Beamish)


Figure 9

Figure 9

The total income for Cordova from 1993-2004 salmon harvest. (Ashe, Dan)


Works Cited

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CGCM, 2000. Meteorological Service of Canada, Environment Canada.

Colt, Steve; Tobias Schwoerer. Prince William Sound Area Economic Data. Dec-12-2003.

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Kopchak, RJ and Amanda Adams. Prince William Sound Economic Profile, 1997-1999 City of Cordova, 2001 Kozloff, Eugene. "Seashore Life of the Northern Pacific Coast." University of Washington Press. 1993. Seattle. Meteorological Service of Canada, Environment Canada Oceanlink.net, oceanlink. http://oceanlink.island.net/oinfo/murrelet/murrelet.html

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Review of the Influence of Climate on Salmon, Columbia Basin Research, James Anderson http://www.cbr.washington.edu/papers/jim/climate.html

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Interviews and personal correspondence

Ashe, Dan. Fisheries Biologist, Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Personal Interview 12-01-04

Bird, Nancy. Personal interview. November 2004.

Burcham, Milo G. 'Re: Oceanography.' E-mail to Elizabeth Locklar. 3 Nov. 2004.

Cooney, Ted, Personal Interview, November 2004.

Merizon, Rick. 'Re Oceanography.' E-mail to Elizabeth Locklar. 22 Oct. 2004. Okkonen a., Steve. Research Assistant professor, Institute of Marine Science University of Alaska Fairbanks. Personal Interview. November 2004. Okkonen b., Steve. December 2004. E-mail Correspondence. Olsson, Dr. Peter Q. Alaska State Climatologist, Alaska experimental forecast facility Personal interview. October 2004.

Saupe, Susan. Personal interview. November 2004.

Schoch, Carl. Personal interview. November 2004b.

Schoch, Carl. Personal correspondence. December 2004c.

Scholz, Astrid. Personal Interview. November 2004.



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