Early Warming

By Bryan Walker 05/01/2012

Nancy Lord is a writer who has spent her adult life in Alaska. In her new book, Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North, she tells the stories of people and places and natural environments on whom climate change is impacting in her part of the world. She is climate science savvy, understanding why ’in the north we live with disappearing sea ice, melting glaciers, thawing permafrost, drying wetlands, dying trees and changing landscapes, unusual animal sightings, and strange weather events’.

The science is woven into a narrative of her visits to people living in the midst of the change, some of them tracking the changes, some facing the challenge of re-shaping their lives to adapt to what is happening. Always the landscape figures strongly as the writer communicates a lively sense of place, whether in the wild or in the crumbling coastal villages where the people wonder what the uncertain future holds for their communities.

In her own region of the Kenai Peninsula a crucial question is what the rising temperatures in the streams mean for the survival of the salmon which are such an important part of the local economy. Salmon are adaptive, but the changes to both freshwater and marine conditions are happening so rapidly and on such scale that the possibility of fishery collapse looms. Lord spends time with a stream ecologist measuring rises in stream temperatures and incidentally noticing the vast damage done to spruce forests by the spruce bark beetles which have flourished under the warming temperatures. Kenai wetlands generally are drying. Areas once dominated by herbaceous plants have been converting to shrub land, an invasion unique in the last eighteen thousand years and accelerating.

Lord travels into the remote Mackenzie Mountains of Canada’s Northwest Territories to look at the boreal forest region, that massive wilderness storehouse of carbon that circles the Northern Hemisphere. A ten day raft and canoe trip down the Mountain River led her party to the Mackenzie River Valley. Some promising conservation efforts are slowly moving ahead, but the development with which it is being ’balanced’, particularly in the form of an eight-hundred-mile-long pipeline to carry natural gas from Arctic gas fields to Alberta, moves more quickly. The irony of such a balance, which reminded me of the New Zealand government’s rhetoric, is difficult to miss. However the indigenous population who are urging conservation first seemingly also hope to share in the profits which will accrue from the pipeline.   In this section of the book Lord focuses as well on the permafrost and the huge amount, including that in the Mackenzie River Valley, which is now within two degrees Fahrenheit of thawing, with all the potential release of carbon that represents.

’O Canada, I thought with trepidation. Can your few people stand up to the power of corporations and the lure of economic development?’

Sea ice and the bears whose habitat it provides is the subject of another section of the book, when Lord spends a week with teacher friends in Kaktovik village on Barter Island in the Beaufort Sea. It was winter, but there was sufficient light for a three hour walk along the beach before early afternoon dusk.  The coastal erosion was obvious. It’s always a factor along this coast, but Lord points out how the warming climate exacerbates it in two ways: thawing permafrost loosens the earth and the loss of sea ice leaves coastline open to sea action, especially storms. She dwells on the frightening implications of the acceleration of sea ice summer melt, remarking that white sea ice reflects about 80 percent of the sun’s heat whereas blue water absorbs about 90 percent.  She  patiently explains the effects on the polar bear population for which the village is famous. The 300 Inupiat who inhabit the village are threatened by the washing away of the land. Lord reflects on the young people of the school she had spoken with:

’They may see within their lifetimes physical changes that, in earlier eras, took place over thousands of years. All of them will have to decide how, and where, and for what, they’ll live.’

The Alaskan village most famous as a victim of climate change is Shishmaref, and Lord records a visit during which she was taken to Tin Creek, the preferred mainland location for a new site for the island village under severe siege from the sea.  But possible relocation is a long tedious business, and the conclusion is by no means assured. The cost is great and the impediments many. And Shishmaref is only one of six villages on the ’immediate action’ list. For that matter the vast majority of the 213 villages in Alaska are seriously affected by erosion and flooding. It’s not hard to believe the US will avoid the issue and simply wait for the villagers to finally disperse when the anxieties and strains become too great, surrendering their community bonds and culture. Lord records that she was often asked direct questions when she met villagers, such as ’What do you think of us?’ She interprets them as in part an expression of pride but also in part a show of insecurity: Do we matter? Are we important enough to save?  Is anyone going to help?

Finally the book turns to the oceanic realm, specifically the Bering Sea. It sketches a complex picture. Fishing management in the face of pressure to allow bottom trawling is demanding enough but it assumes added complexity from the changes in sea ice cover and the movement of species as the region warms and a primarily cold Arctic ecosystem changes rapidly to sub-Arctic conditions. Lord movingly records a gathering of tribal elders to share their perspectives and local knowledge with field scientists. She also reminds readers that the climate change threats becoming apparent in the Bering Sea’s rich ecosystem extend in a variety of ways to the oceans which cover three quarters of the earth and house 90 percent of the planet’s biomass. The effects of ocean acidification, on track by the century’s end to be at a level last seen more than 20 million years ago, are highlighted in her descriptions of  the work of scientists measuring the pH of Alaskan seawater, ’already low enough to be corrosive to shell building’. One of the scientists declares:

’Alaska will be ground zero for ocean acidification, just as it is for climate change.’

There is no hype in Lord’s book. The many human stories which it touches on are respectful of the capacity of the people involved to respond to the challenges that face them. The threats to whole eco-systems are described in restrained terms. The book takes pleasure in the landscapes and peoples of the north. But there is no mistaking the magnitude of the changes that are upon them, or the ever-growing threat from the fossil fuels that continue to be tapped even in a region so gravely threatened by their exploitation. Alaska’s congressional representative dismisses global warming as a myth and champions the production of fossil fuels.

Against the bluster of denial, Nancy Lord’s sane, educated and humane writing chronicles the reality that is already upon us in a key region of the planet.

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