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Rapid Warming Devastates Alaska Ecosystems, Destroys Ways of Life

Jay Galvin/Wikimedia Commons

Record-high sea surface temperatures, record-low Bering Sea ice, and the early disappearance of river ice in Alaska this winter are among the red flags of a rapidly warming climate that is devastating Arctic ecosystems, destroying traditional ways of life—and killing people outright.

“In the midst of a five-plus-year onslaught of extreme warmth, only infrequently broken by the customary cold,” Alaska is melting, the Washington Post reports.

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Taking advantage of the unseasonable warmth, “insects like hungry moths have flourished, destroying forests and crushing cycles of berry growth in parts of Alaska [to an extent that has] no known precedent,” the paper adds. And with dead forests for tinder, and high-pressure zones increasingly stalling above the region in summer, “extreme wildfire seasons are an omnipresent threat,” said Rick Thoman of the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

In some ways, Alaska is seeing climate impacts that are taking longer to show up elsewhere in the world: while the impacts on some of the world’s most productive fisheries have been limited so far, “die-offs of marine and bird life in the region have become increasingly common, as have massive algae blooms in warmer than normal waters,” the Post notes. Meanwhile, melting permafrost is releasing methane, a super-potent greenhouse gas.

There are economic costs to a thawing Arctic, as well: The Post cites Discovery Magazine’s recent calculation that “in Alaska alone, the destruction of buildings and infrastructure due to permafrost thaw over the next century could cost more than US$2 billion.”

And then there are those subsistence hunters and fishers who depend upon long seasons of solid sea ice to help them secure their prey and bring it home. Decreased sea ice extent and thinner, more mobile ice is very hard on rural coastal Alaskans, Thoman wrote in an email, adding that “sea ice changes make wintertime coastal storms more damaging because ice acts as a buffer against waves.”

Increasingly uncertain of such buffering, “communities such as Newtok, Chefornak, and about three dozen other small communities on Alaska’s west coast have been planning to relocate in part or in whole,” the Post reports.

In a region where ice-bound rivers have for generations been community highways in winter, a warming world is already leading to the direct loss of human life. Early in April, two Alaskans died when the ice on the Kuskokwim River collapsed beneath their four-wheelers. Citing an Alaska Public Radio broadcast, the Post says the river ice started to weaken in March this year, rather than at the typical time—in May.