Decades ago, it might have been reasonable to question the linkages between greenhouse gas pollution and climate change. Ten years ago, it might have been reasonable to wonder how soon climate change would spiral out of control, with ever more savage, deadly, and expensive feedback loops. One year ago, it might have been understandable to ask whether we’d passed the tipping point and entered an unprecedented stage of climate and environmental changes that are far outpacing scientists’ most dire warnings.
It is no longer defensible to question any of this, particularly for those of us who live in Alaska. Who would have thought, even ten years ago, that we would have out-of-control wildfires destroying dozens of houses on the road system and threatening entire communities? It wasn’t so long ago that losing a single remote cabin in an Alaska wildfire would be newsworthy. The new normal is to lose dozens of buildings (McKinley fire) and have entire communities on the brink of annihilation (Cooper Landing and the Swan Lake fire). In one sense, we were very lucky this year: When we really needed fire fighters to defend Cooper Landing, there were relatively few Lower 48 fires and hundreds of fire fighters could fly up to Alaska. With increasingly dangerous fire conditions throughout the West as a result of lower snowpacks and extreme heat, every year it will be riskier to depend on outside fire crews’ availability to help contain massive Alaska wildfires.
Several decades ago, scientists estimated the rate of permafrost degradation and associated release of methane gas to be modest. No longer: Vast swaths of Alaska’s permafrost are melting at unprecedented rates, destabilizing buildings and transportation infrastructure, contributing to landslides, and exposing Western Alaska communities to coastal erosion at a rate of dozens of feet per year.
Just a year ago, climate scientists predicted that we wouldn’t see salmon-killing warming of Alaska’s rivers and estuaries until the late 21st century. This summer proved them wrong, as water temperatures soared into the 70s and even 80s, wiping out untold numbers of salmon and exceeding what had previously been worst-case projections for the year 2069.
For a long time, journalism on climate change focused on whether polar bears would be extinct, how many glaciers might survive, and the extent to which distant coastal cities like New York or Miami might be inundated. Any Alaskan who was awake during this summer is aware that there is nothing so abstract about climate change any more. It poses an existential threat to Alaska’s most valuable fishery. It means a previously unfathomable number of homeowners in Southcentral face the very real risk of losing homes and lives to fires. It means previous cost projections for relocating rural communities and rebuilding infrastructure damaged by permafrost loss are grossly inadequate. And it means that the entire suite of industries that depend on healthy fisheries--from bear viewing to sport fishing--are threatened as a result of waters that are too hot for salmon to spawn.
It is beyond obvious that this crisis demands a federal and international response, and instead the President is hustling business for his resorts and strong-arming foreign nations into investigating his political rivals. Unfortunately, until we have a different executive and a Senate that is capable of doing anything beyond reflexively defending a corrupt President, Alaskans are on our own as we live through a climate crisis which defies scientists worst predictions with every passing year and every unnatural disaster.