The rapid thaw of Alaska will accelerate global heating

The state’s warmest spring on record will have planet-wide repercussions.

 

This article was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A city in western Alaska has lost a huge stretch of riverbank to erosion that may turn it into an island, amid renewed warnings from scientists over the havoc triggered by the accelerating melting of the state’s ice and permafrost.

Residents of the small city of Akiak were alarmed to find the Kuskokwim River suddenly much closer to housing after about 75-100 feet of riverbank disappeared over the course of just a few hours.

The erosion, which occurred late last month, stripped away the riverbank for the entire length of Akiak, which has a population of around 340. “We got about three houses in imminent danger, and the rest of them will be coming along pretty quickly,” said David Gilila, Akiak’s city administrator.

A permafrost layer is rapidly melting at Teshekpuk Lake, just off the northern coast of Alaska.

Gilila said he was appealing for funding to relocate some homes, warning that the water could soon surround the city. “We’ll still be here, but we’ll probably become an island,” he said.

The drastic reshaping of Akiak is probably down to thawing permafrost, the frozen organic matter held within soils. Alaska is heating up twice as quickly as the rest of the U.S. as a result of human-driven climate breakdown, increasingly causing this permafrost to thaw and destabilize buildings and cause roads to buckle.

“The changes are really accelerating in Alaska,” said Susan Natali, a scientist and Arctic expert at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts. “It’s pretty likely this riverbank in Akiak was lost because of thawing permafrost, given where it’s situated and the warm winter and spring they’ve had. It’s not a problem that’s going to go away.”

Alaska has just experienced its warmest spring on record, breaking a record only set in 2016. Since the 1970s, springtime in the state has heated up by around 4 degrees Fahrenheit, double the global temperature rise of the past century.

The breakneck speed of Alaska’s rising heat is having cascading consequences, with vanishing sea ice exposing coastal communities to storms, altered wildlife and plant patterns that make it harder for people to find food. There is also a growing wildfire threat putting communities at risk.

Unless it causes buildings to topple, permafrost thawing is often a more obscure feature of this warming, although it could prove to be among the most significant. As the frozen ground across the Arctic melts, it releases a huge amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Scientists recently found this process could trigger a dangerous acceleration of global heating that would cause tens of trillions of dollars in climate-related damage. A separate study found that parts of the Canadian Arctic are experiencing a rate of permafrost thaw six times the long-term average.

In Alaska, there are dozens of towns that the federal government has identified as being in potential need of relocation due to the damage caused by the climate crisis. The village of Newtok in western Alaska was granted $15 million last year to start shifting homes to safer ground but the vast majority of communities have no pathway to do likewise.

“It’s a real challenge because in the U.S. there isn’t the precedence to deal with this and there isn’t the political framework to deal with it either,” said Natali. “The numbers needing relocation will grow, the costs are going up and people’s lives and cultural practices will be impacted.

“Every year there’s a new temperature record, it’s getting worse and worse and you feel like a broken record saying it. This should be the number one urgent conversation happening right now because it’s not just going to be Alaska, it’s going to be other communities all over the U.S.,” Natali added.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes Land Trust, based in Bend, Oregon, seeks a collaborative and strategic Executive Director to lead us in pursuing our mission: to conserve and care...
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Job Title: Development Manager Supervisor: Senior Director of Development Effective Date: May 17, 2021 Job Status: Full-time (40 hours/week), exempt Location: Within the Colorado Plateau...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...