The North Slope: Choices and Consequences


Can we all agree that anthropogenic climate change is as real and as serious as a heart attack?

Can we also agree that the primary driver for man-caused climate change is increased greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, especially CO2?1

And can we also agree that anthropogenic climate change is hitting the Arctic first and hardest?

If you are serious about science and reason, if you care about logic, you answered all three questions in the affirmative.

Then why is Alaska’s economy still built on the fossil fuel industry? The more fossil fuel we consume, the more CO2 in the air, the greater the damage to Alaska’s infrastructure. Encouraging oil field development is, in the long-term, economic suicide. Coastal villages, permafrost melt, increased flooding, vegetation changes; pick your consequence and they all involve catastrophic economic loss to Alaska. A state economy built on fossil fuels will devastate Alaska.

The State of Alaska has a fiscal crisis originally triggered by the decline in crude oil prices and worsened by legislative stupidity. But promoting – demanding – increased oil production might put more crude in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline but it will do so at the long-term cost of destruction of property and infrastructure in the state. A short-term solution that aggravates the greater long-term problems is a lousy choice.

Spruce Bark Beetle Infestation, Kenai Peninsula

Spruce Bark Beetle Infestation, Kenai Peninsula

You think WC is overstating the problems climate change will cause in Alaska? Let’s talk about spruce bark beetles. During the 1990s’ spruce beetle epidemic, spruce beetle activity in Alaska was mapped on over 1.3 million acres based on statewide aerial surveys in 1996. Cumulative spruce beetle activity as of 2010 now totals over 6 million acres statewide (total spruce beetle activity mapped since 1989, based on solely on aerial survey mapping). If you want it in economic terms, in the past 35 years spruce beetle outbreaks have resulted in the loss of an estimated three billion board feet of timber in Alaska. Since the mid 1970’s beetles have killed mature spruce trees on 1.2 million acres of the Kenai Peninsula – about 50 percent of the Peninsula’s forested land.

Why a spruce bark beetle epidemic? Warmer weather. A “run of warm summers” favors beetle survival. Forest researcher Ed Berg defined that on the Kenai Peninsula as two or more summers in which the average May through August temperatures in Homer are at least 51° F. Berg reports The last three summers have been well above that threshold. Climate change models predict summer temperatures on the Kenai will continue to be ideal for beetles.

How many other small changes in climate will have devastating effects on Alaska’s ecology and environment? We can foresee collapsing coastlines and imperiled roads, houses and pipelines as permafrost melts. What are the consequences we can’t foresee? Impact on fisheries? Impact on the Tongass? As rainfall patterns shift, increased risks of drought and flooding?

Alaska’s obsession with crude oil and coal is gambling with its children’s and grandchildren’s futures. One barrel of oil is about 433 kilograms of CO2. The 220,000 barrels of oil a day that Governor Walker wants ConocoPhilips to produce translates into about 43,000 tons of CO2. Every day. About 8 million tons a year. Sure, that’s only about 4 seconds worth of worldwide annual CO2 emissions. But then Alaska has a pretty big stake in minimizing climate change. It’s a problem that completely overshadows the current fiscal crisis. Or at least it should.

In the meantime, Alaska is burning down its house to keep warm for a night. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

 


  1. Well, everyone but EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, who has been paid by the fossil fuel industry not to think, and specifically to not think CO2 is the major driver in global warming. The Eighth Bolgia of Dante’s Hell awaits, Administrator Pruitt. 
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