News Watch

Alaska-centric environmental research, legislation, action alerts, and opportunities.

June 24, 2021

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:

Let’s start with some good news. In a win for the Gwich’in Nation and numerous environmental groups, Deb Halland, Secretary of the Interior, signed an order to suspend oil and gas exploration and leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, pending a comprehensive environmental analysis. You may remember that, under the Trump administration, a last-minute lease sale was held in January, and while the State’s Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority placed several bids (basically taking money out of one pocket to put in another), only one oil company, a small independent out of Australia, joined the bidding process. To date there has been no activity on those leases due to an executive order put into place just hours after President Joe Biden was inaugurated. Read more here.

Caribou above the Arctic Plain - Alexis Bonogofsky / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Climate Crisis:

Given the cool, wet spring here in south-central Alaska, it’s easy to forget that the western half of the country is experiencing an oppressive, life-threatening heatwave. According to an article by NPR, “These sprawling, persistent high-pressure zones popularly called heat domes…would be a pretty extreme event for August,” but having them persist in June is especially troubling. If it’s this hot now, what will August bring? A quick scan of temperatures for the coming week indicates highs of 108º in Tucson, 100º in Billings, and 104º in Portland. No surprise, but records are being broken across the region. To compound problems, due to both a low snowpack last winter, and accelerated evaporation from such high temperatures, the megadrought, which began in 2000, is expanding across the west at an alarming rate. By early May, 21% of the region was already experiencing “exceptional” drought – the worst category under the U.S. Drought Monitor’s framework. Lake Mead, the main source of water for some 25 million people, is at 36 percent capacity (around 143 feet below full), its lowest point in history. We can expect crop failures, fish die-offs, another year of devastating forest fires, and an increasing exodus of westerners fleeing to cool climates, like Alaska. Read more here and here.

Despite the cool, cloudy weather La Nina has delivered to the southern half of Alaska, the arctic region has not been spared. Fairbanks will hit 80º this week, and Fort Yukon is expected to hit 84º, which is pretty hot for the northern half of the state. Six large (250 - 2500 acre) and three very large fires (greater than 2,500 acres) are burning in Alaska. And while wildfire is part of the normal regime in interior Alaskan forests, several of these fires are occurring in areas dominated by tundra. Tundra fires were once a rarity, but with dryer, warmer weather, they are becoming increasingly more common. Unfortunately, when they burn, they release huge quantities of stored CO2 and methane – further driving climate change. 

So called “Zombie fires” have, once again, flared up. Zombie fires survive the winter, smoldering under the snow, only to reignite once the ground is bare. Locally, the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula, which burned more than 100,000 acres in 2019, popped up again in 2020, although its footprint was minimal. Those zombie fires may, in part, account for the early fire season in Siberia, where “an abnormally high number of wildfires” are burning. That temperatures are some 25º above normal isn’t helping. Smoke from Siberia is making its way eastward, no doubt accounting for the haze we’ve been experiencing over Kachemak Bay.  

The climate news just keeps getting worse. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CO2 levels hit 419 parts per million in May after a covid-related dip last year. CO2 levels have not been this high since four million years ago, when ape-like Australopithecus first roamed Eastern Africa and sea levels were 78 feet higher than today.  

When talking about climate change in Alaska, we always stress that the arctic is warming at twice the global average. Not anymore. Now, according to the Arctic Council, the arctic is warming at three times the global rate. With a decline of 43 percent in sea ice extent since 1979, a 3° warming in permafrost soils, and cruise ships now plying the North-West passage during summer months, the arctic is transforming at a remarkable rate. 

Fin, Feather and Furbearing:

There’s positive movement on the wildlife front. A federal appeals court ruled in favor of walruses and against a Trump administration omission to include walrus as a threated species under the Endangered Species Act. Walruses rely on sea ice to care for their young and to forage for clams, crustacean and octopus. It is unclear how they will adapt as sea ice becomes more seasonal and they are forced onshore for weeks or months at a time. 

The following feels like a gift. If you’ve ever tried to ID birds by their call, and wished for a phone app to help you, your wait is over. Cornell Ornithology Lab has just come out with a new app that “listens” to that illusive bird and provides suggestions and song tracks for you compare your sighting (listening) to. Learn more at:https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/

Local Foods:

As an avid gardener and producer of local foods, I was excited to read about a young Native Alaskan woman, Eva Dawn Burk, who’s developing a business plan for wood-fired greenhouses in Alaska’s Native villages, starting with Nenana, 60 miles south of Fairbanks. Burk learned about local food production from Susan Willstrud and Tom Zimmer who, along with an energetic staff, run Calypso Farms in Fairbanks. As it so happens, I have known Susan and Tom for nearly 30 years, back when Calypso was a dream and they were looking for land to make that dream happen. Calypso has morphed into an expansive farm and training center based on ecological gardening practices. What they’ve done is nothing short of inspirational, spurring Burk and other visionaries like her into action. Local production in Alaska, where we import 95% of our food, often at great cost, is the perfect opportunity for young Alaskans looking to make a meaningful difference in their communities. Read more here and here. And watch this video about Calypso farms here.

Calypso Farm staff