An early warning system

Beautiful piece of writing, from the National Geographic online – and from Barrow in Alaska.

Eugene Brower, an Inupiat Eskimo and president of the Barrow Whaling Captains’ Association, doesn’t need fancy parts-per-million measurements of CO2 concentrations or long-term sea-level gauges to tell him that his world is changing.

“It’s happening as we speak,” the 56-year-old Brower says as we drive around his home in Barrow, Alaska—the United States’ northernmost city—on a late August day. In his fire chief’s truck, Brower takes me to his family’s traditional ice cellars, painstakingly dug into the permafrost, and points out how his stores of muktuk—whale skin and blubber—recently began spoiling in the fall because melting water drips down to his food stores. Our next stop is the old Bureau of Indian Affairs school building. The once impenetrable permafrost that kept the foundation solid has bucked and heaved so much that walking through the school is almost like walking down the halls of an amusement park fun house. We head to the eroding beach and gaze out over open water. “Normally by now the ice would be coming in,” Brower says, scrunching up his eyes and scanning the blue horizon.

We continue our tour. Barrow looks like a coastal community under siege. The ramshackle conglomeration of weather-beaten houses along the seaside gravel road stands protected from fall storm surges by miles-long berms of gravel and mud that block views of migrating gray whales. Yellow bulldozers and graders patrol the coast like sentries.

The Inupiat language has words that describe many kinds of ice. Piqaluyak is salt-free multiyear sea ice. Ivuniq is a pressure ridge. Sarri is the word for pack ice, tuvaqtaq is bottom-fast ice, and shore-fast ice is tuvaq. For Brower, these words are the currency of hunters who must know and follow ice patterns to track bearded seals, walruses, and bowhead whales.

There are no words, though, to describe how much, and how fast, the ice is changing. Researchers long ago predicted that the most visible impacts from a globally warmer world would occur first at high latitudes: rising air and sea temperatures, earlier snowmelt, later ice freeze-up, reductions in sea ice, thawing permafrost, more erosion, increases in storm intensity. Now all those impacts have been documented in Alaska. “The changes observed here provide an early warning system for the rest of the planet,” says Amanda Lynch, an Australian researcher who is the principal investigator on a project that works with Barrow’s residents to help them incorporate scientific data into management decisions for the city’s threatened infrastructure.

Via Desmog blog.

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