The Arctic: A Bellwether of Climate Change

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Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Climate change is a polarizing issue. Some of those in the public eye claim it to be a hoax, while others argue for immediate, drastic action. In order to provide clarity to this issue, The Center for the Study of Democracy and The Patuxent Partnership co-sponsored an event featuring scholar Dr. John Walsh on October 27, 2016. The lecture was titled “The Arctic and Climate Change”, and the doors of the Auerbach Auditorium in St. Mary’s hall were open to all, without charge.

Dr. Walsh’s credentials allowed him to speak with authority. Walsh obtained his PhD in Meteorology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently the Chief Scientist and President’s Professor of Global Change at the International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He also has the title of co-Director of the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

Dr. Walsh has dedicated his time to studying the Arctic and its levels of frozen coverage. More recently, he has studied extreme weather and climate events in the Arctic and middle latitudes.

“The Arctic is a bellwether of climate change,” explained Dr. Walsh. He said that scientists can use observations from the Arctic to identify trends and indicate the future of climate change for the rest of the world. “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic,” a playful phrase that Dr. Walsh coined to describe the importance of studying this region, was substantiated by data correlating temperature changes in the Arctic to rising sea levels, feedback to greenhouse warming, and extreme weather around the midlatitude regions on the globe.

However, Dr. Walsh explained, the cause for concern is not based solely on the global impact, but on the impact local to the Arctic as well. According to Walsh, 50% of all ice in the Arctic has melted in the past thirty years due to rising temperatures. The loss of ice has made life harder for the locals, complicating travel. At this point in the lecture, Dr. Walsh showed an image of a native to the Arctic struggling to cross a patch of ice because of the melting, which has ruined the uniform, skateable coverage.

Another example of climate change’s effect on humans that Walsh highlighted was seen in the Alaskan village of Kivalina. The people of this small, remote town must soon relocate due to thinning of the ice surrounding the area. According to an article by Chris Mooney of The Washington Post, the relocation of the Americans who call Kivalina home, not only has a personal, human impact, but it also sparks an economic debate over the costs of climate change.

Permafrost was also mentioned in Dr. Walsh’s talk. The bits of frozen water, deep below the surface provide structure to the ground. Once it melts, the ground can no longer hold itself up and sinkholes can form. Walsh explained that the temperature at their underground measuring points is warming, these results are starting to become evident. The effects of thawing permafrost are not limited to the ground giving out. Walsh elaborated that carbon in a gaseous form is released when the subsurface water melts. This contributes to the greenhouse effect, warming the earth even further.

Jetstreams are amplified as temperatures in the Arctic rise. The path of natural disasters such as hurricanes can be linked to the shape of the jetstream. Walsh accredited the path of Hurricane Sandy to the rise of temperature in the northernmost region.  

The easiest way to portray the problem of climate change in the Arctic is by looking at images from space showing ice coverage there. The amount of ice is steadily declining. Contrary to statements made in 2008 by then Vice Presidential Republican nominee, Sarah Palin, Dr. Walsh stated that the Alaskan Glaciers are in fact retreating. He pointed to the differing colors to prove this.

As the Arctic warms, the rest of the world will soon follow, bringing a new host of issues with it.  So, is it time to panic? Walsh expressed that there must be a sense of urgency. The projections he used suggested that human intervention must begin now to prevent detrimental environmental concern. He said that emissions must be cut in half by 2050 to avoid a suboptimal path.

Dr. Walsh mentioned that awareness of global warming, and description of it as a human-caused problem, is split down party lines. As election day approaches on Nov. 8, it seems fair to state the presidential candidates’ positions on climate change.

The Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump, has called it a hoax, as verified by Polifact. On Trump’s website, he now promises to focus on clean energy, while rejecting Obama’s “job-destroying” environmental-protection-oriented executive actions.

His Democratic counterpart, Hillary Clinton, states, “Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.” She outlines a plan on her website to tackle climate change through government intervention.

The Green Party candidate for President, Jill Stein, positions climate change as the most prominent issue on her platform, vowing to create a “an emergency Green New Deal to turn the tide on climate change, revive the economy and make wars for oil obsolete.” She states she will “initiate a WWII-scale national mobilization to halt climate change, the greatest threat to humanity in our history.”

The Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, states on his website that he does value protecting the environment, but does not support public sector intervention to counteract it in most cases. “The federal government should prevent future harm by focusing on regulations that protect us from real harm, rather than needlessly costing American jobs and freedom in order to pursue a political agenda.”

If you are interested in reading more about Dr. Walsh’s work, please visit the International Arctic Research Center website at iarc.uaf.edu.


Disclaimer: This article was intended to summarize the points made by Dr. Walsh, then relate those to the 2016 presidential election. The Point News does not endorse any candidate. Please visit this article online at thepointnews.com to access hyperlinks to each candidate’s position in their own words, a third part comparison tool such as The New York Times comparison or whatever source you trust most.

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