Obama's Alaska Trip Stresses Wildfires' Impact on Climate Change

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By Kristin Donnelly

As President Barack Obama continues his trek across the Arctic, he is using the opportunity to highlight what scientists say is a frightening connection in the vast forested lands of Alaska between raging, record-setting wildfires and climate change.

It’s the second worst fire season in Alaska in the last 50 years, second only to 2004.

Besides making summers hotter and snow melt faster in the United States’ northern-most point, warmer temperatures and drier conditions — coupled with unprecedented lighting strikes — means fires start more easily and are burning more land in Alaska than almost ever before.

So far 743 fires have burned up 5.2 million acres of Alaska, stretching fire crews from all over the country to their limits and changing the Alaskan landscape.

“The increases in wildfires are clearly linked more strongly to climate,” said Terry Chapin, ecosystem ecologist and professor emeritus at University of Alaska, Fairbanks. “We are experiencing years with extensive hot dry periods much more frequently, so we expect years with extensive wildfire to continue to increase as global climate continues to warm in response to increased human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases.”

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President Obama acknowledged the changes while speaking at GLACIER conference in Anchorage Monday, noting “Alaska’s fire season is now more than a month longer than it was in 1950. At one point this summer, more than 300 wildfires were burning at once.”

The president talked about the dangers and challenges the wildfires pose for firefighters across this country and Canada.

But, beyond the manpower issue as firefighters work to battle the blazes, there’s an even greater possible impact to the planet.

It’s because all of the “stuff” sitting below the burning forests could potentially release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and make the problem of global warming even worse.

The “stuff” in question includes something called permafrost, ground that’s supposed to be permanently frozen or, more technically, any soil with an average temperature that’s below freezing.

Frozen along with that particular soil is a huge store of carbon.

“The real wildcard being the vulnerability of the permafrost,” said T. Scott Rupp, a fire ecologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

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Rupp said much of Alaska’s permafrost is covered by a layer of moss and dead leaves and other organic matter on the forest floor, protecting it like a giant feather quilt. But as wildfires burn off more and more of that natural barrier, it makes permafrost more vulnerable and more likely to thaw.

As the permafrost thaws, it will release the long frozen store of carbon.

Ted Schuur spends summers in Alaska and is right now studying the connection between these almost unprecedented wildfires and climate change at the University of Northern Arizona. He says there’s no doubt that when significant amounts of carbon end up in the atmosphere it makes climate change faster.

But the real problem is the fires.

“Fires can act as a ‘tipping point’ mechanism,” Schuur said. Essentially, speeding up degradation of the permafrost and releasing the carbon faster.

“Anything that speeds carbon release makes climate change happen that much faster — giving us less time for mitigation or adaptation efforts,” Schuur said.

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President Obama hopes to drive home that point that changes are already happening in this country with his historic visit to Alaska.

“Climate change is no longer some far-off problem. It is happening here. It is happening now,” President Obama said in Anchorage.

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The state of Alaska is a home to 736,000 people, a remote place many in the lower 48 states have never visited. Though remote, scientists are watching what happens here closely.

Alaska is essentially, ground zero for the impact of a changing climate on planet earth, scientists and Obama administration officials say. And while scientists predict the warming of the planet probably won’t stop, it can slow down.

“The reason it’s a big deal – it’s interrelated to everything else in the arctic, loss of sea ice, the polar regions warming faster,” Scott said.

And several scientists from the University of Alaska who are studying it and living it, agree.

“Our grandchildren will certainly wonder how we could have been so thoughtless as to commit them to the climate extremes and sea level rise that are becoming an increasing threat to society,” Chapin said.