Year 4, Month 10, Day 16: For Seven Long Years I’ve Been A Rover

The Anchorage Daily News says that Alaska is ground zero, the “world’s laboratory for climate change”:

When Jerry Otto started hunting for Alaska oil in 1980, his tractor-trailers barreled along ice roads that were up to 10 feet thick for 180 days every year.

Last winter, when he set out to drill for Australia’s Linc Energy, regulators opened the roads for 126 days. The rest of the time, warm weather left the routes too mushy for vehicles, according to Bloomberg Markets magazine.

Then, in January, in a twist that embodies the perplexing reality of life and commerce amid a changing global climate, the temperature dropped suddenly to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, encasing drilling rig components in ice as Otto waited for roads to solidify to ship the gear to Linc sites.

After thawing the equipment with blowtorches, he discovered that the cold was reducing oil flowing into Linc’s well. With 200 workers standing by, the company lost $300,000 a day with each delay, ending 2012 with a $61 million deficit.

Otto plans to try again in December, this time drilling sideways into a hill to get underneath 1,000 feet of permafrost and up into reservoirs he says hold 1.2 billion barrels of light, sweet crude.

“It’s getting more unpredictable,” said Otto, 59, who runs Linc’s drilling rig in Umiat, 80 miles south of the Arctic Ocean, which is within the National Petroleum Reserve that President Warren G. Harding created in 1923 to guarantee oil for the Navy.

Try looking at it from an interstellar alien’s perspective! October 7:

While its Arctic location indeed makes Alaska a “laboratory” where our transforming climate’s effects can be witnessed first-hand, industrial civilization’s experiment on Earth’s atmosphere has consequences everywhere around the planet. Alaska’s melting permafrost may be a vivid demonstration of the higher temperatures triggered by increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, but climate change is equally tangible for Pakistani farmers losing their lands to torrential flooding, African villagers facing devastating drought, or island nations confronting the reality that their entire existence may be ended by rapidly rising sea levels.

Earth’s oil and coal was built up in the Carboniferous Era over a span of hundreds of millions of years; our civilization is now burning all that fossilized carbon and reintroducing it into the atmosphere at an astonishing rate: five million years’ worth per annum.

Alaska may be one of the places where the greenhouse effect’s ramifications are most obvious, but make no mistake: there’s no place on Earth where climate change is not happening. We’re all lab rats; no one is exempt.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 7, Day 16: GBKW

I don’t have any good news, unfortunately. The Toronto Star addresses melting permafrost, calling it a “Time Bomb”:

…the physical changes already seen in northern landscape is telling, said Dr. Merritt Turetsky, a University of Guelph ecologist who participated in the permafrost study.

“The (International Panel on Climate Change) outlined several scenarios and we are exceeding the worst case scenario,” she said.

Turetsky began her research on Canadian permafrost in the late 1990s. Over the last decade, she travelled to a number of permafrost sites in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories — and she’s seen the melting permafrost drastically change the landscape.

“In that short time, the transformations are quite drastic,” she said. “It literally turns a forest into a semi-aquatic pool . . . vegetation starts to slump, thaw and sink into the ground. Trees start to pitch. This is causing the landscape to change in ways that most of the community hasn’t quite recognized yet.”

She said “collapse scars,” where trees and other types of vegetation slump over and sink into ponds, are becoming an increasingly common sight across the Canadian North.

In Inuvik, Rodgers said the town has experienced “permafrost stumpage” over the last several years — eroding roadsides and ditches dug in the permafrost that quickly transform into large, gaping holes.

Turetsky said the risks posed by permafrost remain high if human-made greenhouse gases remain on pace.

With nearly half of the country covered by permafrost, the impact will reach beyond already affected northern communities in the coming decades if scientists’ predictions are accurate.

Turetsky said a limit on human-made emissions could help keep some carbon frozen in the permafrost, but added that she fears an enormous amount of damage has already been done.

“The analogy is that it’s a big train about to derail,” she said. “Once it begins, permafrost thaw occurs slowly but you can’t stop it. That lack of control makes anybody feel nervous.”

I do love this world with all its beauty and all its music. So sorry to see it go. June 28:

The language of scientific discourse tends away from emotional intensity. Even the most alarming of conclusions is couched in affectively neutral terms; a scientific description of the Hindenburg disaster might run something like “a near-instantaneous hydroxygen combustion reaction triggered the ignition of carbon compounds, leading to destruction of vehicular infrastructure and a statistically significant mortality rate.” Oh, the humanity.

This detached tone demands careful scrutiny, especially when the subject is something as potentially devastating as melting Arctic permafrost, which could release enormous amounts of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a geological eyeblink. When an ecological scientist like Dr. Merritt Turetsky uses phrases like “drastic transformations” and “a big train about to derail,” the rest of us need to recognize that her measured words are the scientific way of shouting “FIRE!”

Ignoring the climate crisis would be the costliest mistake our civilization ever makes.

Warren Senders

Year 4, Month 3, Day 11: A Monde Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

BREAKING: Idiot half-term governor’s hand-picked replacement is also an idiot:

Before being picked as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, Governor Sarah Palin seemed a true believer in climate change. In September 2007, responding to requests for urgent action, Palin established the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet to develop and implement a comprehensive Alaska Climate Change Strategy.

But we’ve just learned that, after Palin resigned in summer 2009 and Sean Parnell (a former ConocoPhillips executive) replaced her as governor, the new governor essentially terminated the Climate Cabinet, without informing the Alaska public. Evidently, Gov. Parnell does not think the risk of climate change in Alaska serious enough to continue the Climate Cabinet, or perhaps he fears it may compromise his “drill-baby-drill” economic plan. Either way, this is spectacularly irresponsible.

In establishing the Climate Cabinet, Palin correctly stated that: “Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural, and economic issue important to all Alaskans. As a result of this warming, coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires, and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans. Alaska needs a strategy to identify and mitigate potential impacts of climate change and to guide its efforts in evaluating and addressing known or suspected causes of climate change.”

The changer things get, the samer they stay. March 2:

The distance between “should” and “will” is vivdly evident in the cavalier dismissal of Alaska’s climate change sub-cabinet by Governor Parnell. The readiness of self-styled “conservatives” to do anything but conserve would be astonishing if it weren’t so predictable.

Under climbing Arctic temperatures, huge swaths of land will become unrecognizable; ecosystems which developed to fit Alaska’s unique conditions will struggle to adapt to an environment changing too fast for evolution to keep up. Climatologists’ predictions of the impact of an increasingly hotter world have, if anything, underestimated the speed, severity, and complexity of the damage; to willfully ignore science because its findings are inconvenient or uncomfortable is to live in a dream world.

Conservative climate-change deniers in American politics need to visit the real world — a place where superstorms, droughts, heat waves and drastic ecological transformations are already underway. Governor Parnell needs to wake up and smell the permafrost.

Warren Senders


Year 2, Month 2, Day 27: Some Days These Letters Are No Damned Fun At All

I’ve never written to the National Geographic before. Strange, since that magazine was an important part of my childhood and the general growth of my environmental awareness. They ran an article on the Zwiers study which triggered this letter. In addition, I mention the NSIDC report on melting permafrost, which you should not read if you want a good night’s sleep; this is about as bad a piece of news as we’ve had in quite a while, which is really saying something.

Mailed Feb. 18:

The Zwiers study confirms the link between global warming and extreme weather events worldwide, but this is unlikely to change many minds among the climate-change deniers, who are now so ideologically wedded to their position that no amount of evidence will suffice. Especially in light of the recent reports from the National Ice and Snow Data Center indicating rapid and irreversible melting of a majority of the Earth’s permafrost (with consequent release of massive amounts of CO2 and methane into the atmosphere), such a failure of understanding is a tragedy. The next centuries will witness unimaginable disruption of ecosystems, agriculture, and infrastructure; to deny reality at this moment is to lose our last chance of mitigating some of the damage before it overwhelms us. Once, our nation honored scientific achievement and inquiry. Now, it seems, we enshrine delusion and magical thinking, to the detriment of the lives of future generations.

Warren Senders