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.

Global Warming in Barrow, Alaska

Authors

Christalin Vyctres
Stephanie Deeter
Amy Collman
Autumn St. Amand

 

Team Jeannot Allemand
Seward High School
PO box 1049
Seward, AK 99664


Seward Jeannot Allemand team photo


Seward lead photo

Abstract

The disastrous consequences of global warming forecasted by some scientists are already in evidence in Alaska, where rising sea levels may force the relocation of native villages and towns. We face the problem of moving native villages that have been located along the Arctic and west coast of Alaska for centuries because they are slowly but surely being inundated by seawater. One of the towns that will have to be relocated is Barrow, Alaska, on Point Barrow, the northern-most city in the United States with about 4,500 residents, most of them Inupiat Eskimos. The Northwest Passage appeared to be ice-free this last summer for the third year in a row. Inupiat hunters report that cellars dug into permafrost to store caribou and whale meat are beginning to thaw. Scientists have predicted that the effects of global warming will be amplified and first noticed in the Polar Regions. Global temperatures are increasing, that human activities are an important cause of climate change, and that the potential consequences may be catastrophic. As a plan to prevent more pollution that can lead to destructive climate change leading into further global warming is: (1) educate people on the hazards of polluting. (2) Work with federal organizations to create regulations to prevent pollution. (3) Put into action research projects to further our knowledge of why global warming is happening. We will examine these different issues and break then down to better understand the effects, the signs, and what we can do to plan and possibly prevent global warming hazards to come.
 



Catastrophes happen everywhere you look; whether it's on CNN or HBO, something's getting trashed. On and off the silver screen, disasters plague us. One disaster, however, isn't thousands of miles away obliterating New York. No, it's here, and even though you don't notice it (except for maybe on the Fourth of July as your Klondike bar melts a little faster) its effects on Alaska are immense.

Global warming used to be dismissed as a mere hype among overenthusiastic environmentalists, but the severe impact of it just on Alaska show that it's anything but a hallucination. The state's climate is as unstable as jell-o, varying from year to year and decade to decade. The only thing that can be depended upon is that the temperature will rise, and precipitation rising hand-in-hand with it. Right now, the arctic is the warmest it has been in 400 years. It's obvious this isn't a problem that is just going to go away. As it grows, the enormous changes it will make to not only our nation's economy, but our nation itself, are endless. These alterations, regardless of their cause, whether it's aerosol cans or Mother Nature, present serious issues to the people, communities, and businesses. While the United States is in a position where it can adapt and overcome many of these changes, adaptation is often expensive, not always possible or successful, and could cause ecosystems, communities, and individuals to suffer during transitions.

In the small town of Barrow, Alaska, we get a taste of what is to come as they deal with the threat of relocation due to the rise of seawater, melting permafrost, thunderstorms (which are unheard-of so far north), and many others. These dilemmas are more than enough reason to for us to take global warming to heart, and for us to monitor its signs with a wary eye.

The total district of Barrow's area covers 18.4 square miles, containing 2.9 square miles of water. It is located 71.3 degrees North latitude and 156.79 degrees West longitude, bordering the Chukchi Sea, which is free of ice from mid-June to October. The town's climate is obviously arctic, with very light precipitation and an average of 5 inches of rain and 20 inches of snow each year.

The population of the town is, as of December 2001, 1,581 people, with 64% of the population being Inupiat Eskimo. They'll hunt whales such as the Bowhead, Orca, and Beluga whales, along with other marine life like seals, Polar Bears, Walrus, Caribou, Graylings, and ducks.

A dam on the Isatkoak Lagoon, North of Barrow, provides piped water for the town. Though roughly 50% of the town use honey buckets, most residents receive piped water, burn natural gas, and have other modern amenities. Some will drive cars but mostly get from place-to-place on ATV's or snow machines. If the season and weather permits, they'll have small planes fly to outlying villages on a regular schedule.

We now start looking at warning signs of global warming that could affect us in everyday life.

The sea ice in northern Alaska has been melting, making it difficult for animals to survive. The melting sea ice is affecting most animals; such as, polar bears, caribou, whales, birds, seals, and the people that depend on these animals. Walruses and seals have been having a hard time finding a platform to rest on between feeding on fish and mussels; they are also migrating to find more fish, because the fish are leaving the area of the melting ice. According to Greenpeace, walrus populations are also suffering from the retreat of the sea ice and changes in food supply as is evident by their recently low juvenile survival rates (http://archive.greenpeace.org/pressreleases/arctic/1999aug5.html).

The black guillemots are having a difficult time finding food because the fish are migrating. When the ice started moving away from the coast the black guillemots had better nesting areas, but as the ice melted and moved out to sea the fish moved too. Nesting was made possible when the Arctic sea ice moved the fish out to sea.

Storms and melting permafrost, snow, and ice are just a few issues of climate changes in the northern fraction of Alaska. Storm waves are a result of retreating sea ice as well. Sea ice forms a wall to keep the storm waves out. Because the ice is melting, it causes the storm waves to pour onto the shore, causing erosion and sedimentation.

As the permafrost thaws, the roads, houses, airfields, forests, and pipelines are going to be in need of maintenance As the ground warms and the permafrost melts it may cause the ground to sink bringing down a house, road, or part of the pipeline with it. According to the New York Times, Shishmaref, Alaska is voting on moving the village inland because the permafrost is melting so horrifically it's getting harder to live there (http://class.cldstar.com/engl102_spring2004/articles-to-use/alaska-warming/16ALAS.html). The erosion is getting so extreme; soon there won't be much of Barrow left.

Melting permafrost can dry up the tundra, which would force the caribou to forage for less nutritious vegetation. The animals are accustomed to eating nutritious vegetation, but when the permafrost dries the tundra the animals may become easily sick, this causing animals to have food-borne illnesses. This can result in diseased meat that Inupiat hunters can't eat (http://web.ask.com/redire?bpg=http%ask.com). According to the Earth Crash Earth Spirit Organization, Inupiat hunters also reported that their cellars, dug into permafrost, to store caribou and whale meat are beginning to thaw, due to the warmer climate. Local officials worry that they may eventually have to provide refrigerated storage facilities for the caribou and other animals harvested by the residents.

The World View of Global Warming wrote “Tundra radiation and gas flux are very intense when the ground is free of snow and plants are growing rapidly.” As the heat waves from Barrow's ground show, technology is measuring the amount of methane and carbon dioxide. “Snow melted from the tundra a month earlier in 2002 than in previous years.” According to OM Articles by Time Magazine, the days without snow in the summer have increased from fewer than 80 to more than 100 in the past 50 years (http://www.ompersonal.com.ar/ecology/globalwarmingmap.htm). Carbon Dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels collects in the atmosphere and act as the walls, such as those of a greenhouse, which keep the heat near the Earth's surface. The effects from this can be mild to horrifying to say the least.

The minds of many people tend to assume the effects of global warming will not happen in their lifetime and will not affect them in a personal way. However; even if another ice age is not occurring this very day there are some serious effects that are taking place that have been resulting in great problems among Alaskan's everyday life in some huge life altering ways.

One of the key issues of climate change in the Polar Regions is the melting of snow, ice, and permafrost. According to Dr. Gunter Weller, Executive Director at the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research' the Arctic has already experienced a marked reduction in extent and duration of snow cover, shorter seasons of river and lake ice, melting of mountain glaciers, retreat and thinning of sea ice, retreat of permafrost and increased depth of its thawed top later. This thawing has already brought about ecological and socioeconomic impacts, which appear likely to be emblematic of further changes under projections of continued greenhouse-induced warming. Thawing and northward movement of the permafrost will increase maintenance costs for roads built in discontinuous permafrost terrain, and affect houses, airfields, pipelines and other infrastructure (http://www.akcf.org/gw.htm, May 14, 2003). Temperatures in the Alaska Arctic have raised more than four degrees in the past thirty years. At this rate, a century from now arctic temperatures could be almost fifteen degrees warmer. Even at the current rate, the consequences of arctic warming in Alaska will include; melting permafrost, melting ice caps, and mounting disaster for Alaskan's adapted to this ice and permafrost. For Alaskan Natives this determines whether there will be seal or caribou to feed the family, if there will be plants for food and medicine, or even solid ground to support the ancestral home (http://we.ask.come/redir?bpg=http%ask.com).

Thinning of sea ice' which is expected to shrink by at least half by the end of the century and could disappear altogether' could determine the fate of many other key Arctic species, said the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the product of four years of work by more than 300 scientists. Polar bears are dependent on sea ice because they use it to hunt for seals, which periodically pop up through breathing holes in the ice (http://bobwhitson.typepad.com/howlings/global_warming/, 2004). According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change' the time bears have on the ice, storing up energy for the summer and autumn when there is little available food is becoming shorter. As the periods without food become longer, the overall body condition of these polar bears declines. This is particularly serious for bears that are pregnant or have cubs, and for the cubs themselves. In Hudson Bay, along with Barrow Alaska scientists have found the main cause of death for cubs to be either lack of food of lack of far on nursing mothers. Rising temperatures in the southern Arctic, therefore, mean less sea ice, leading to less healthy bears. Deduced body condition can lead to lower reproduction rate, which in the long run could lead to local extinction (http://www.ngo.grida.no/wwfap/polarbears.com).

Another concern due to global warming according to researchers form the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Manitoba; the scientists report that the rising average temperatures in many placed in the world are allowing non-indigenous birds, fish, mammals, and insects to move into many Arctic regions like Barrow Alaska. Competition by these creatures could wipe out the native species and harm the livelihoods of people who live there. In one instance, melting permafrost is allowing an inland late to drain into the ocean, thereby killing the lakes freshwater fish (Http://www.icta.org/projects/trans/glocal/environmental.htm).

According to Dr. George Divoky from the Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska Fairbanks; melting of snow in the spring and a decrease in the seasonal and annual extent and thickness of sea ice has resulted in rapid changes in coastal and marine habitats. Sampling the biotic components of the Arctic Ocean poses major logistical problems. However, for almost 30 years a study of a seabird, the Black Guillemot, has been conducted at a colony near Point Barrow, Alaska. The species is resident in the Arctic throughout the year where it feed on fish and zooplankton found under the pack ice. The response of the breeding colony to decreases in snow and ice over the last five decades demonstrates the speed at which warming temperatures can affect biota at high latitudes like Point Barrow. This has been proven to be increasing through out the past few years (http://www.akcf.org/gw.htm, May 14, 2003).

Subsistence hunting remains to be the primary way of life on Point Barrow, but the people are having some problems and concerns about harvesting the traditional animals like fish and other marine life. Sea levels have raised an average of nine inches in the last century. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on climate change estimated that sea lives will raise another 3.5 to 34.6 inches y 2100 due to warm water temperatures in the oceans. Alaskans have reported that Arctic ice is 8 inches thinner in some places this year then it was last year due to these warmer temperatures. Locals in Barrow are directly affected by this in their traditional ice fishing. Locals are saying the ice is now too dangerous to go out and hunt. They worry that the ice will break.

Studies show that global warming affects the transmission of human diseases. Changing temperatures, for example, alter the growth rate and virulence of parasites and the geographical ranges of pathogens, hosts, and disease vectors. As the temperatures warm and the snow and glaciers recede up the mountain, the plans start to attain higher elevation and the vectors move with them. As the plans and temperatures and insects ascend so do the diseases that they transmit.

According to a study on the Yukon River done by Dr. Tichard Kocan's, the UW Professor of Aquatic Fisheries Science'; the rate of infection has closely tracked rising water temperatures for nearly two decades and is having a profound impact on the humans, and the ecosystem's other dependent species (http://www.akcf.org/gw.htm May 14, 2003). The natives do not have the proper medicines to threat his newly developed food born diseases present. This may cause frequent deaths among some native Alaskans.

The Washington Post Company has reported that the melting of permafrost has also causes areas to become vulnerable to land erosion in places far north as Barrow, Alaska. If this continues then Barrow may be one of the villages to be relocated. Areas that have been protected for years due to the permafrost have now because moist and unstable, leading to mudslides. Ad we all know, water expand when frozen, meaning when permafrost starts to thaw the land will sink down causing subsidence. With the combination of subsidence and the mudslides, many places will have to be relocated.

A warmer Arctic will have negative impacts around the world. This will accelerate the pace of global warming. Some of these affecting; migratory species that feed and breed in the Arctic, possibly slowing the ocean circulation that brings hear from the tropics to the poles, and this further disrupting global and regional climate and contributing to further sea level rise.

Glaciers, sea ice and tundra will melt, contributing to global sea level rise. Reported by the Washington Post Company; by the end of the century, sea levels could rise by nearly one yard. A warmer Arctic will contribute up to 15 percent of this rise. If the Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level could rise by as much as 25 feet. Today there are 17 million people living less than one meter above sea level in Bangladesh, while places like Florida and Louisiana in the Untied States, Bangkok, Calcutta, Dhaka, and Manila are also at risk from sea level rise. Greenland's and Alaska's ice melting problem may cause parts of the world to be eaten into the sea from the great rise in sea levels and this is only one the huge effects that starting in Alaska, global warming can bring to the rest of the world. The impacts seen in the Arctic are dramatic examples of how global warming is beginning to impact our world (Http://bobwhitson.typepad.com/howlings/global_warming/, 2004).

In order to understand how we can prevent harmful global warming in Barrow, it is necessary to understand how and why it is occurring. Scientists view global climate change in two ways. The first is natural climate change. This can be caused by volcanic eruptions, variations in the earth's orbit around the sun, and variations in solar output (http://www.worldviewofglobalwarming.org/pages/alaska2.html). The second is climate change by human activities. Human activities that can cause a change in the climate include industrial pollutants, burning of fossil fuels, and worldwide deforestation. (http://www.worldviewofglobalwarming.org/pages/alaska2.html) While we can only educate ourselves about the natural causes of global warming, we can take preventative steps to stop warming associated with urbanizing the planet. First, we should look at why global warming is happening in Barrow.

Natural warming is part of a process in which the gases in our atmosphere, especially oxygen and carbon dioxide, absorb long wave radiation and hold it in our atmosphere, raising the temperature of the earth. Problems arise when additional gases emitted by humans absorb the long wave radiation as well, trapping large amounts in the atmosphere and causing a greater rise in temperature. These additional trace gases include methane, chlorofloro carbons, nitrous oxide, aerosols, ozone, and carbon dioxide. This unnatural warming trend is noticed worldwide, as well as in Barrow.

Carbon dioxide is considered the trace gas of greatest importance because of the large increase in its concentration as well as its probable continued rise due to global consumption of fossil fuels. It is clear from looking at the evidence that carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing dramatically in the atmosphere. Over the period of 1973 to 1982, the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in Barrow rose steadily from 332.6 parts per million to 342.8 parts per million. (http://www.x98ruhf.net/global_warming.htm) The amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in Barrow has definitely increased. The main cause of this increase is due to an increase in tundra radiation and gas influx off of the tundra. The increased carbon dioxide and methane released this way create a warmer temperature. This in turn increases the tundra radiation again, making a dangerous cycle that increases CO2 levels. This cycle is believed to be caused by a change or adaptation in the vegetation around Barrow which originates from the impact of many people and urbanization of the area. The level of carbon dioxide is probably also influenced by increase in population and more use of fossil fuels for heat and in transportation than in the past. (http://www.north-slope.org/nsb/default.htm)

In the 1970's studies were done in Barrow concerning a haze that covered the atmosphere. After years of studying this haze, it was determined to be caused by aerosols. It is extremely hard to get these aerosol hazes out of the air in Barrow because in the winter it's so cold that the polluted air can't be cleaned naturally (by precipitation) as easily as it could in the summer. (http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1076/is_n10_v34/ai_13298180)

The main causes of global warming in Barrow have been identified as increase in population, which can affect plant life and emission of carbon dioxide, as well as use of fossil fuels for heat and transportation which burn off carbon dioxide, and use of aerosols which can create a pollution haze. Other natural processes may be involved in climate change, but have not yet been identified as a worldwide problem. (www.beringclimate.noaa.gov/data)

We propose as a plan to prevent more pollution that can lead to destructive climate change, that we should (1) educate people on the hazards of polluting, (2) work with federal organizations to create regulations to prevent pollution, (3) put into action research projects to further our knowledge of why global warming is happening.

The first step is education. People are less likely to pollute if they know what if really does to the atmosphere and what kind of future ramifications may come of it. If the people of Barrow better understand how they can take simple steps to stop pollution, I'm certain they would get involved in the protection of their beloved home. Little things like not using things that come out of aerosol cans, or proper disposal of garbage help. The educators should include scientists and researchers that visit the villages periodically. The problems and prevention of pollution in the atmosphere should also be a part of the school's curriculum, taught to all students. These efforts will add to current programs such as the School yard Saturday program which provides lectures and field trips for students in Barrow to learn about global warming in the area.

Another step is to step up regulations for use of fuel or chemicals that pollute the atmosphere. This might include regulations for burning fuel, i.e. how much fuel can be burned. Or perhaps instead of burning petroleum for heat and gas, burning natural gas which is more efficient and environmental friendly. Other restrictions might be put on disposal of wastes and chemicals so that they don't end up back in the air.

The last step is research. The more we find out about global warming, the more we can do to prevent it. There are and have been research projects in Barrow and around the area, but if we continue to do research we will be better off. Of course this takes funding so collaboration with the U.S. government or an international organization which deals with pollution is necessary. The United States Department of Energy can provide a little funding, but a more likely source is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (better known as the EPA). As long as we keep learning about the issues, we can stop the problems.

The climate changes in Barrow are apparent. We can see the changes in the vegetation, the wildlife behavior changes, the population decline of seabirds in the area, tundra radiation and gas flux, and weather changes such as warmer, longer summers, shorter winters. These all have an effect on how the people of Barrow have lived for 100's of years, and will continue changing the lifestyle of the village. Understanding why these changes are taking place, some natural reasons, and some linked to human pollution, has helped us to understand how to prevent some of the changes that have a negative affect on the land, sea, and people of the area. We know that through education, regulation of possible pollutants, and research a lot of the harmful pollution that changes the climate can be prevented. While much damage has already been done, we can set examples for future generations. If we can show the next generation how to take care of the land they live in, we might be able to preserve it longer.

Figures

Figure 1.

Figure 1

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