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OPINION: Report card gives humans failing grade in planet stewardship

December 15th, 2017 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

In my greenhouse, the kale is growing again. It took a hit a month ago when temperatures dropped to single digits at night, and I thought it was dead for sure. But the past two weeks have been warm and rainy. The snow that we got in November has given way to sheets of ice so slick no sand will stick to them for more than 10 minutes. The only things that make movement possible are ice cleats and studded tires, and even they are not enough sometimes.

In the 25 years I've lived in this corner of Alaska, there have been plenty of times when warm winds turned early winter here into a hot, gray mess. But it only lasted a few days and then returned to normal. Now, the days have stretched into weeks, and the soggy horror that is the Pacific Northwest in the winter has all but taken root in my neighborhood.

We all have stories like these in Alaska. The farther north you go, the more the changes are obvious. Yes, it still gets cold sometimes and yes, it's still dark as can be. But the weather is changing and the only Alaskans who don't notice it are the ones who are intentionally not looking.

This week, the Arctic got its annual report card, a synopsis of the latest information from the science world about the state of our warming earth. This year, again, it was not a report card you want to bring home. The Arctic is, for all intents and purposes, failing to remain Arctic-like. The worst grades this year come in both overall temperature, where 2017 is ranked as the second warmest year on record, and in sea ice retention, where our grade shrank to record lows. There is less ice overall, and the ice that is there is new ice, not the multi-year ice that has staying power. Across the Arctic, tundra is being replaced with shrubs and trees and habitat is changing. The waters are warmer. The ocean life is changing. And none of this is news to Alaskans.

For the rest of the world, however, it's a little hard to wrap one's mind around the reality of these changes. One recent report documented how scientists thought weather data from Utqiagvik was flawed because it was warming so fast this year, the computer's programming kicked the data out as unreal. In 17 years, October in Utqiagvik has climbed 7.8 degrees. November's average temperature is up 6.9 degrees.

On a human scale, having an October day that is 7 degrees warmer than it was a decade or two ago doesn't make much difference in the short term. But look around and you'll see evidence that the larger environment is having difficulty adapting to this unprecedented speed of change. Some of the first to show stress are our marine creatures, many of whom Alaskans have depended on for subsistence food as well as income.

Just last week, scientists indicated that halibut stocks are diving down, likely victims of the warm ocean phenomenon known as "the blob." Many sea bird colonies still haven't rebounded after devastating die offs in years past. Warmer waters mean more algae blooms. And in the Bering Straits region, 39 dead walrus were found to have an algae-produced biotoxin in their intestines, the same toxic substances that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans.

So, while we can just take off our long johns, the environment around us has evolved based on a certain temperature range and for a balanced ecosystem to run smoothly, that temperature range must be maintained. When the temperatures start to change, the environment changes, too, but often times, those changes are dramatic and challenging to adjust to. Traditional food sources are replaced with new ones, and, as those changes occur, the potential for mass casualty events that can disrupt the balance of everything increases. In the natural environment, everything has an important role, and one die off leads to a cascade of other disasters.

In the developed nations of the world, we tend to forget or mischaracterize our role in the environment. We tend to think of ourselves as being above these changes. Why should a guy in Washington, D.C., care if a village in the far north is a few degrees warmer and a hunter can't find its traditional food sources? Why shouldn't we use disposable products, drive big cars and fly food thousands of miles around the planet so we can have watermelon in December?

But that's the biggest mistake humanity has ever made. Because we are all connected — every micro-organism, bug, plant, animal, fish and fern. Most of those organisms cannot keep up with this pace of change, and they provide us with food, clothing, housing, fuel, and water. Without stability in our natural environment, our world will spiral out of control and everyone and everything will suffer.

And in the greenhouse, the arugula is growing again.


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