“My worst fear is the speed of change,” a local climate scientist warms.
Alaska was once a place where subzero temperatures ruled for months on end. No more. A recent record-setting heat wave saw the mercury rise to positively balmy 17 Celsius in some areas of the once frigid northern region, well above the seasonal average.
Both February and March this year were “exceptionally warm,” according to Rick Thoman, a climate specialist who works at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.
In early February, for instance, locals in Utqiagvik, where daily temperatures reached records on 28 of the first 100 days of 2019, witnessed an unusual spectacle: strong winds swept ice from land out to sea in an indication of excessive melt. “It was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never seen that before,'” Thomas recalls.
And the warming has continued through April too. The unseasonal heat may be welcome by some people with a love of outdoors activities, but it has the makings of an environmental catastrophe in the longer run. “Climate change is happening faster than it’s ever happened before in our record,” Thomas notes. “We’re right in the middle of it.”
As temperatures are warming, ice sheets are disappearing on the nearby Bering and Chukchi seas, both of which had record-low amounts of ice this past March. Weather patterns also remain erratic in the region, which poses risks to local flora and fauna while threatening the livelihoods of people like fishermen. Ice sheets have become so thin in some areas that fishermen don’t want to risk venturing out onto them in search of crabs.
“Many recreational sled dog races have had to be canceled this year and the routing of the famed Iditarod race had to be changed as what is normally solid sea ice was open water on part of the race route,” a news agency reported. Meanwhile, melting ice on rivers also cut off local communities from one another as frozen riverine routes are the only alternatives for many Alaskans in winter to get around.
“My worst fear is the speed of change and being able to cope,” Thoman says. “Alaskans are resilient, our indigenous culture has been here for 10,000 years but change has never occurred at this pace.”