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
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!