Obama visits Alaskan ecosystems affected by climate change

President Barack Obama recently traveled to Alaska to assess the environmental impacts global warming is having on infrastructure in different communities along the Arctic shoreline. Many of the once stable structures are beginning to dissolve as the increase in temperature has caused ice to melt and sea water to rise. 

"In Arctic Alaska, villages are being damaged by powerful storm surges, which, once held at bay by sea ice, are battering the barrier islands where those villages sit," said a White House representative, according to The New York Times. Obama is developing grant programs that will allow villages on the coastline to manage the erosion, high energy costs, and in some cases, relocate the entire village.

Increasing temperatures and melting ice
Alaska is the largest state by square mileage in the U.S. and known for its wide range of ecosystems and its diverse organisms. Alaska contains 90 percent of the wildlife refuges and 75 percent of the national parks across the nation. In the last 50 years, the overall average temperature in Alaska has increased by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and during the winter season, the average temperature has skyrocketed by over 6 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Permafrost fluctuations are having huge affects in Alaskan groundwater."

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these drastic movements in temperature are starting to affect the permafrost, which is the frozen ground located one to two feet below the surface in cold regions. This can lead to sink holes, structural damage, soil and water problems and groundwater contamination.

These events have also caused a serious decrease of arctic ice, and 50 percent of the estimated loss is located on Alaskan glaciers. In southern Alaska, the glacier surface elevations have decreased over 95 percent, and with some glaciers, they have decreased by almost 2100 feet. Without glacial ice, many organisms are losing their habitats or are unable to find food, which could lead to more endangered species.

Permafrost loss impacts groundwater
Historically, in some areas of Alaska, the permafrost will partially thaw during the summer months and then re-freeze during the winter months. This allows water to properly drain from the ground to bodies of freshwater throughout the state. Recently, there have been significant amounts of carbon found in groundwater because of more permafrost thawing in the summer months, according to associate professor Romanovsky of The Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska. The escalation of carbon found in the active soil has increased the number of microorganisms during the summer (which is now a longer period of time). This, in turn, is leading to higher levels of carbon dioxide. As groundwater moves through the active soil, it is pulling microorganisms and other contaminants into the lakes, streams and rivers, causing an increase in algae blooms as well as a decrease in many of the larger vertebrate organisms that live in the freshwater ecosystems.  

To prevent further decreases in the diverse populations of Alaskan organisms, water quality consultants can be used to determine the different toxins in the groundwater and aquifers. If the local government is not careful, more animals as well as people will be at risk of being poisoned. 

Alaska continues to deal with the wide-reaching results of climate change. Alaska continues to deal with the wide-reaching results of climate change.

Decreasing permafrost impacts fisheries
Alaskan fisheries have been struggling to meet their quotas for the past 10 years. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), recorded pink salmon harvests in 2006 to 11.4 million, which was 40 million less than originally predicted.  According to ADF&G, the temperatures where salmon spawn exceeded the optimal temperature for over 80 days caused a serious decrease in different populations. 

The Northern Bearing Sea is beginning to transform from arctic to sub-arctic conditions, which is causing stress on many fish and marine mammalian species. Benthic organisms have also decreased in the last 10 years due to the increase in water temperatures, resulting in bottom feeders like gray whales and species of sea ducks to a population decline. In the last six years, snow crab and other crab species have declined by 85 percent, and many species have migrated further north. Recent surveys conducted by ADF&G have measured the first decrease in pollock stocks in six years, which led to reducing the catch allotment for both nationwide and local fisheries. 

These organisms not only feed people, but also are part of the aquatic ecosystems that are beginning to break down. More organisms, both invertebrates and vertebrates, are struggling to survive in their current arctic ecosystems. It is becoming more important than ever for government agencies to survey endangered invertebrate and vertebrate organisms living in areas where the climate is changing faster than organisms can adapt. If the local and national governments do not take action quickly, many of the organisms found in the Alaskan waters will no longer survive.