For many living in the lower 48 states, climate change has yet to impact our daily lives, and is still considered a looming threat. However, in Alaska, climate change is a present danger that is bringing substantial changes to lands and waters and the people and animals that depend on them for survival.
In Alaska, climate change is causing
- significant shifts in ecosystems across the state
- Movement of species and species habitats; and
- Increased risk of invasive species, devastating wildfires, and shipping pollution.
Climate Change is Happening Now
Many parts of Alaska have already begun experiencing the effects of climate change – most notably through the disappearance of summer sea ice. In fact, according to Peter Larsen, senior policy advisor on climate change and energy for The Nature Conservancy, some researchers believe the Arctic could experience ice-free summers by 2040.
“Because of this record loss of sea ice,” Larsen says, “the Inupiat people living in coastal villages near the Beaufort, Chukchi, and northern Bering Seas who rely on the marine wildlife resources for subsistence and cultural identity, are struggling to adapt.”
But more subtle and more insidious changes are occurring in Alaska as well. Northern parts of the state that were once covered in vast tundra are now shifting to boreal forest due to warming temperatures.
According to a 2004 study by Dominique Bachelet, the director of climate change science for the Conservancy, rising temperatures could result in major habitat shifts across Alaska as mixed boreal forests yield to maritime and temperate conifer forests, and tundra disappears from all but the state’s northern coast. These areas will be further stressed as the melting ice sheet and sea level rise drown tundra landscapes along the northern coast.
“In the study, we looked for general trends and we project that boreal forest will expand into tundra areas,” Bachelet says, noting that the accuracy and reliability of global climate models are limited. “Recent studies agree with these projections and have shown that tundra areas in Alaska are being colonized by shrubs.”
Threatened Species on the Move
As habitat shifts occur, many species are forced to shift as well, or risk extinction. One example is the Canada Lynx which could lose up to one-fifth of its existing habitat in North America due to climate-induced vegetation shifts, according to a recent study by Patrick Gonzalez, a climate change scientist for the Conservancy.
The Canada Lynx requires suitable snow cover, and a vast habitat of boreal and subalpine forest to hunt and thrive. As climate change increases temperatures across Alaska, forests are shifting northward and the snow cover that Canada lynx need for survival is diminishing. The Canada Lynx is listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, however it is not threatened in its Alaskan range.
While the results of Gonzalez’s study do not point to a net decrease of Canada Lynx habitat in Alaska, the species could still be at risk in the state. “Boreal forest, snow, and snowshoe hare – the primary food source for the lynx – may not shift synchronously,“ Gonzalez explains. “So climate change could produce habitat fragmentation and, at the least, disruption of the conditions that the Canada Lynx require for survival.”
Pests, Fires, and Pollution
Climate change is also resulting in unexpected threats across the state that are exacerbating rising temperatures. Invasive species and pathogens, which can adapt more readily to climate change, are sweeping across Alaska. These invasive pests cause large-scale forest die-off and an increased risk of wildfires.
In the 1990s, the spruce bark beetle devastated millions of acres on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, resulting in the greatest insect-related damage to forests in North America. The outbreak has been linked to rapid warming on the peninsula and overall mild temperatures.
In addition to these changes, Bachelet notes that the melting ice sheet could open northern shipping lanes. With the rise of shipping, diesel soot from ships would also cover the snow pack and increase melting. This increased pollution – notably nitrogen deposits – would result in vegetation die-off and increase soil warming.
Confronting a Changing Landscape
As climate change takes hold across Alaska, Conservancy scientists and staff are moving aggressively to ensure the conservation of ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people by prioritizing areas where innovative conservation strategies have the most leverage given the rate of change occurring in the state.
“We’re working with planners and researchers to identify current and future places at risk,” Larsen says. ”Our strategies include developing and distributing information about the current and near-term state of the North, and working with partners on the best research management practices. The Conservancy is also promoting long-term monitoring of northern landscapes to ensure that we are successful in conserving important places for people and wildlife.”