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Alaska Scientists Contribute To National Climate Change Seport

June 17, 2009

Two University of the Alaska Fairbanks researchers are among key contributors to a new national report that details visible effects of climate change in the United States and how today’s choices stand to affect the future.

The report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” is the first to focus on observed and projected climate change and its effects specifically in the United States. UAF scientists A. David McGuire and John Walsh were part of a consortium of experts from 13 U.S. government science agencies, major universities and research institutes that produced the report.

“A key point from the study is that from everything we’re seeing in terms of impacts, it’s clear that we are committed to more warming,” said McGuire, a landscape ecology professor and researcher with the UAF Institute of Arctic Biology.

The report is written in plain language and is intended to better inform policymakers and members of the public. It is not intended to direct policymakers to take any one approach over another, but rather emphasizes that the choices people make now will determine the severity of climate change effects in the future.

“Almost no policy action could be implemented that would mitigate the factors causing the warming fast enough that we wouldn’t experience any impacts,” said McGuire, who is also an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. “It’s up to our society to make decisions about the degree of warming and impacts we are willing to deal with.”

Over the past 50 years, Alaska has warmed at more than twice the rate of the rest of the United States. Its annual average temperature has increased 3.4°F, while winters have warmed even more, by 6.3°F.

As a result, climate change effects are much more pronounced than in other regions of the United States. The higher temperatures are already causing earlier spring snowmelt, reduced sea ice, widespread glacier retreat, and permafrost warming. These observed changes are consistent with climate model projections of greater warming over Alaska, especially in winter, as compared to the rest of the country.

“Alaska’s at the vanguard of climate change and we’re seeing the changes here sooner that elsewhere,” said Walsh, director of the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research at UAF’s International Arctic Research Center.

An Alaska-region fact sheet produced in conjunction with the report notes that the key issues facing Alaska are:

  • Longer summers and higher temperatures are causing drier conditions, even in the absence of strong trends in precipitation.
  • Insect outbreaks and wildfires are increasing warming.
  • Closed-body lakes in Interior Alaska are declining in area.
  • Thawing permafrost damages roads, runways, water and sewer systems, and other infrastructure.
  • Coastal storms increase risks to villages and fishing fleets.
  • Displacement of marine species will affect key fisheries.
  • The study also finds that Americans are already being affected by climate change through extreme weather, drought and wildfire and details how the nation’s transportation, agriculture, health, water and energy sectors will be affected in the future. It argues that the current trend in emission of greenhouse gas pollution is significantly above the worst-case scenario examined in this report.

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