Virtually unreported last week was a troubling report by US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell who warned that the US will be forced to deal with a flood of Climate Change refugees In Alaska as towns and villages are washed away or consumed in a rapid warming of the arctic unlike anything experienced in Human history. This on the heels of data from the Japan Meteorological Agency showing that that the global mean temperature increase in March was an astonishing 6/10 of a degree hotter than March, the most precipitous increase in 125 years.
“The JMA measurements go back to 1891 and show that every one of the past 11 months have been the hottest ever recorded for that month,” the Guardian Newspaper reported. The numbers and data were corroborated by NASA Friday. Those numbers have been growing at an alarming rate since 2014, outpacing previous years. 2015 was higher still, shocking even scientists. The UK Met Office predicts that 2016’s numbers will set a new and dangerous record.
“We can’t turn this around,” Jewell said during a recent official visit to Canada. “We can stem the increase in temperature, we can stem some of the effect, perhaps, if we act on climate. But the changes are under way and they are very rapid.”
Kivalina, Alaska finds itself the poster child on the frontlines of that growing climate crisis. The town finds itself increasingly imperiled by rising seas amid a string of warm winters and diminished sea ice. Ice once insulated the coast and town from erosion. The lack of ice in recent seasons has seen increased flooding and erosion. A predominantly indigenous Inupiat community, the site has seen indications of human activity for more than a thousand years. Rising sea levels could permanently erase the community within 10 years.
Kivalina, population 382, according to the 2013 census, lies above the Arctic circle just 200 miles from the north pole. In recent years it has had to be evacuated several times as storms and flooding swamped the island town. A narrow lagoon separates the town from the mainland, with few avenues for escape in a crisis, a looming likelihood that the residents of Kivalina are now appealing to Washington for help.
“We really need that evacuation road,” City Council Administrator Janet Mitchell to the Alaska Dispatch News on Saturday. “We have no way of getting off the island in the event of a major storm. Planes won’t be able to come in. We won’t be able to go anywhere because in fall-time, much less spring, traveling conditions are very bad. We would be stuck.”
1400 miles east, in Alberta Canada, just below the Arctic Circle, a bit of tragic irony is unfolding as massive wildfires besiege the town of Fort McMurray. Canada and the northwest have seen a stunning increase in the number and severity of wildfires driven by a combination of global warming and el Nino weather patterns. Alberta has seen more than double the average number of annual wildfires this year, or about 330 so far. Western Canada , including Alberta faced a severe drought last year, essentially turning Tundra into tinder.
“One factor that is often overlooked,” the BBC reported, in the race to discover the causes of natural disasters is demography. Just before the last major El Niño in 1997, the population of Fort McMurray was just over 30,000. The last census indicated it was over 60,000. More people means not just a greater impact when fires occur, it also suggests the chances of one starting are increased.”
In recent years Fort McMurray has seen, in a twist of ironic fate, a boom in oil sands extraction. Some 30% of the population is employed in the mining and oil and gas extraction industry, essentially feeding a global climate cycle now poised to incinerate the town. It is that cycle which binds the two imperiled communities.
As of early Friday morning, 88 thousand people were forced to flee the growing fires, which now surround the town. 25,000 of those, according to Canadian authorities, are facing an additional emergency resettlement to keep ahead of the flames. More than 1800 homes and businesses had already been destroyed, and officials feared the town could be lost altogether. In a BBC update, “the Waterways district had lost 90% of its homes, with 70% lost in Beacon Hill and 50% in Abasand.”
But it could be the long term impacts of smoke and particulates that create more lasting global consequences. Soot from fires can affect the climate in a spectrum of waves. The smoke from the Fort McMurray fires, which satellite images show plainly hundreds of miles from their source are alternately depositing soot throughout the region while still more is carried aloft. The deposited soot absorbs heat and sunlight increasing surface temperatures and strengthening heatwaves. That in turn heats lakes and rivers, such as the Mackenzie River, whose warmed waters are carried to the Arctic where warming is further accelerated.
Soot carried into the atmosphere traps heat normally radiated back into space. Additionally the soot falls back to earth on Arctic ice and glaciers, further accelerating temperature rise and ice melt. But the narrative in the Press remains the he said/she said soap opera distraction of the American presidential campaign, filled with bombast, innuendo and snide remarks but lacking in substance and perspective to the true crisis facing the planet. We saw that at least once before, upon the deck of the doomed ship Titanic. With waters rising, there weren’t enough lifeboats to save many of the passengers. Meanwhile on the bridge the captain dithered while on deck among the panicked and hopeless passengers, the band played on.