Alaska, the first frontier for warming in U.S.

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The view from above this vast tract of wilderness is dozens of rivers, streams and lakes carved into yellow tundra, green hills and white mountains. It’s a stunning panorama, and the 2,500 square miles of park — an area bigger than Delaware — are a pristine lab for studying a Northwest icon: wild salmon.

Daniel Schindler, a University of Washington fish biologist who has made the park his summer home since 1996, calls it nature’s “patchwork quilt.” Schindler monitors the Wood River watershed, a key spawning ground for wild salmon. Commercial fishermen cast their nets in nearby Bristol Bay when salmon return, part of a massive industry that employs 20,000 and feeds millions.

The natural quilt here is strong, but even its fabric is susceptible to a trend enveloping the world: global warming. The phenomenon is already taking a toll on other parts of Alaska and scientists like Schindler are looking for subtle shifts that could signal not only changes here, but what’s in store for the rest of Earth.

Warming four times faster here
Alaska is the coldest state in the nation, but it’s warming the fastest — up to four times faster than some parts of the country and the world. To boot, “an acceleration of these climatic trends is projected to occur during this century,” experts concluded in a landmark “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment” report.

Most experts tie the global warming to growing carbon emissions from cars and industry. Carbon particles in the atmosphere are part of a natural greenhouse effect that traps heat from the sun, making Earth inhabitable. But carbon from burning fossil fuels is trapping even more heat.

The results are visible and palpable in Alaska. Waters are warming, permafrost is thawing, coastlines are eroding, forests are shifting north, glaciers are receding and sea ice is shrinking. Whole towns may be forced to move or drown in advancing coastal waters. Polar bears and walruses could face extinction.

Experts say science may never be able to say for certain how much climate change is natural and how much is manmade. But they agree that human fingerprints are all over the changes in Alaska.

John Walsh is a climate geek who pores over computer models and field data at his office at the International Arctic Research Center, on the University of Alaska’s campus in Fairbanks. When you do the math, he says, you learn that average temperatures in Alaska have risen by 4 degrees F since the 1950s.

Sporting a crisp white shirt, cropped hair and conservative eyeglasses, Walsh looks and sounds like an insurance agent as he makes his pitch: Reducing carbon emissions is like buying home insurance — it’s protection against disaster. “It’s time to act,” he says.                          

Where’s the tipping point?
The consequences of what’s happening in Alaska offer lessons for people outside the state. Its receding glaciers have contributed to a slight rise in global sea levels. Coastlines around the world will be threatened if the trend continues with similar melting in Antarctica and Greenland.

Scientists expect a tipping point, but what will it be? “It’s a very worrisome thing to be warming Earth without a clear idea of what the end state is,” says Matthew Sturm, an ice expert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fairbanks.

With a population of only 670,000 in an area twice the size of Texas, Alaska has been able to tolerate warming changes so far because nature has had room to adjust, says Glenn Juday, a forest ecologist at the university.

“But you folks in the lower 48 are gonna be in real trouble,” he says. “You’ve only got one Yellowstone; we’ve got dozens. Up here things can move around, down there it’s not so easy.”