America’s Ecological Precipice

Alaska is a good-sized part of the Arctic, the world’s epicenter of climate change, where sensitivity to human-caused global warming is magnified much more than in the 48 lower states. As such, Alaska (twice the size of Texas) is part of the ongoing, rapid meltdown of the Arctic, which is certain to bring more scorching heat waves and more severe weather patterns—such as extreme droughts and sudden torrential downpours.

As the Arctic warms, which is currently happening two-to-three times faster than elsewhere on the planet, two prongs of looming disaster may occur with increasing frequency and severity: (1) the warming Arctic alters the atmospheric jet streams, bringing in its wake embedded droughts similar to the 2012 blistering drought—the worst since the 1950s; (2) and the warming Arctic will release methane into the atmosphere, threatening to heat up the entire planet.

According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, as of April 2013, “About half of Americans (49 percent) believe global warming—if it is happening—is caused mostly by human activities, a decrease of 5 points since Fall 2012, but similar to levels stretching back several years” (Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD, et. al., Climate Change in the American Mind—American’s Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in April 2013, Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication).

Of considerably more concern, the Yale Project found that, “Over the years of research, we have consistently found that, on average, Americans view climate change as a threat distant in space and time—a risk that will affect far away places, other species, or future generations more than people here and now.” 

This lackadaisical attitude in America is one of the most haunting aspects of the very real threat of an extinction event. But, the threat is no longer just a threat. It is already in its early stages. According to the Arctic Methane Emergency Group, “The planet is on the verge of runaway climate change, leading to the distinct possibility of an extinction event” because of the massive release of methane trapped under the warming Arctic, which is currently happening with wild abandon all across the Arctic, from Russia to America.

Based upon eight joint Russian/American scientific expeditions into the Arctic under the aegis of the International Arctic Research Centre at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, methane fields have been discovered with plumes over a half-mile wide spewing methane directly into the atmosphere in concentrations 100 times higher than normal. The Russian and American scientists have never before experienced anything of such magnitude. In addition to powerful emissions from shallow waters where over 100 readings were recorded, it is spewing up from within cracks in the Arctic ice in the open seas far from land. 

Moreover, the quantities of methane in the continental shelf alone are so huge and overwhelming that only 1 or 2 percent of the methane released could lead to an unstoppable chain reaction of runaway overheating of the planet. Along these lines, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group is deciding to quantify, for the first time ever, the results of runaway climate change, leading to the probability of an extinction event on planet earth. Nobody knows for sure.

National Assessment

The official climate assessment for the nation, the National Climate Assessment (NCA) as of January 2013—a 1,000-page report and the work of more than 300 governmental scientists, issued once every 4 years—is unequivocal about the links between climate change and extreme weather, stating: “Climate change is already affecting the American people…. Certain types of weather events have become more frequent and/or intense including heat waves, heavy downpours and in some regions floods and drought. Sea level is rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting” (Suzanne Goldenberg, “Climate Change set to Make America Hotter, Drier and More Disaster-Prone,” the Guardian, January 11, 2013).  

The NCA report, which is not due for official adoption until 2014, is meant as a guide for governmental jurisdictions in making long-term plans. And, the report clearly states, the steps taken by the Obama administration are “not close to sufficient” to prevent the harmful consequences of climate change. As mentioned in the NCA report, America is already feeling the effects of climate change, for example, 2012 was by far and away the hottest year on record—“an off-the-charts rate of increase.” In March 2012, winter turned to summer with temperatures in the 1980s overnight, leading to the worst drought in 50 years, a prime example of the effect of the warming Arctic interfering with the jet streams. And, if not for America’s extensive system of aquifers and natural resources, crops would have suffered much more severely.

The same report concludes: “Of all the climate-related changes in the U.S., the rapid decline of Arctic sea ice cover in the past decade may be the most striking of all.”

The Northeast, in particular, is at increasing risk of coastal flooding because of sea-level rise and storm surges. Alas, New York City has already gotten a taste of this. The Northeast is also subject to massive river flooding because of heavy downpours. Between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast experienced a 74 percent increase in heavy downpours.

The Midwest will continue to endure extreme weather patterns, whether it be droughts or flooding, resulting in significant threats to crop growth throughout America’s breadbasket. Asthma, flooding, droughts, power outages, and food shortages, similar to a third world country, should be enough to light a fire within the government of any advanced society, but, and contrarily, an earlier National Climate Assessment report released in 2009 was “swept under the rug,” according to Lou Leonard, director of the climate change program for the World Wildlife Fund. The response by America’s leading political operatives seemed to be: “Who cares?” 

This pronounced lackadaisical, carefree attitude ensconced within America’s political establishment is nearly unconscionable. Furthermore, the White House response to the 2013 report is extraordinarily circumspect, as stated: “The draft NCA is a scientific document—not a policy document—and does not make recommendations regarding actions that might be taken in response to climate change.”

Somebody in the White House needs to review, re-read, and maybe memorize the portion of the report that mentions the “most striking of all” climate-related changes is the rapid decline of the sea ice cover in the Arctic, which is setting the stage for an extinction event because of the massive release of methane directly into the atmosphere. Methane is at least 20 times more powerful than CO2. The repercussions down the line will likely make the 2012 drought in America’s breadbasket seem like a “walk in the park” given a few more years of methane gushing into the atmosphere, as America’s crops are toasted.

Not only that, but according to the U.S. Interior Bureau of Reclamation, the Rocky Mountains supply water for 22 percent of Americans, mostly in the Southwest, but recent U.S. Geological Surveys warn that warmer spring weather has reduced snow cover in the mountains by 20 percent. In this manner, climate change directly impacts America’s drinking water, hydroelectric dams, and crop irrigation for over 70 million people (“Western States Face Increased Water Resource Risks,” Western Farm Press, April 27, 2011).

Major Aquifer is Depleting

America’s High Plains Aquifer—one of the world’s great aquifers responsible for about 30 percent of America’s irrigated land, and which runs from Wyoming and South Dakota to the Texas Panhandle, covering 320,00 square miles—is increasingly tapped out in its southern portions. Vast regions of Texas farmland can no longer tap the aquifer for irrigation. It’s dry. In west-central Kansas, up to 20 percent of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile stretch has gone dry. This is an extremely ominous sign of a potential ecological disaster, lending greater significance to increasing levels of danger when embedded droughts once again strike the countryside. 

According to Leonard Konikow, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, regarding a study of the nation’s depletion of U.S. underground freshwater supply, “We think it’s serious…. It’s more serious in certain areas” (Francie Diep, “U.S. has Depleted Two Lake Eries’ Worth of Groundwater Since 1900,” Popular Science, May 2013).

When the groundwater runs dry, it is gone for good. Refilling an aquifer requires hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And severe, embedded droughts brought on by the warming Arctic, which are progressively unique to modern-day climate change, increasingly challenge the integrity of this most important and critical American resource. 

As it happens, embedded droughts are happening all across the Northern Hemisphere, for example, Russia halted grain shipments a few years ago because of the severity of drought.

A recent (May 2013) New York Times article says it all: “This is in many ways a slow-motion crisis—decades in the making, imminent for some, years or decades away for others, hitting one farm but leaving an adjacent one untouched. But across the rolling plains and tarmac-flat farmland near the Kansas-Colorado border, the effects of depletion are evident everywhere. Highway bridges span arid streambeds. Most of the creeks and rivers that once veined the land have dried up as 60 years of pumping have pulled groundwater levels down by scores and even hundreds of feet” (Michael Wines, “Wells Dry, Fertile Plains Turn to Dust,” the New York Times, May 19, 2013).

First-hand testimony about the heartland’s blight comes from farmers like Ashley Yost in Haskell County, Kansas, who previously pumped 1,600 gallons of water every minute, but now pumps less than 300 gallons. For Yost, this is not just a signal of impending trouble; the catastrophe has already arrived. According to Yost: “I’ve raised 294 bushels of corn an acre there before, with water and the Lord’s help. Now it’s over.”

The recent extreme drought of 2012 across America’s breadbasket has brought the seriousness of a shortage of water to a crescendo as the Kansas Geological Survey reported that average water levels dropped nearly a third of the total decline since 1996—over a period of only two years. Or, put another way, 1/3 of the total 17-year draw- down of the aquifer occurred in 2 years. This is a not a telltale signal of gathering disaster, rather, the possibility of an impending collapse of the ecosystem.

Bizarre Politics

Nobody symbolizes the discord of opinion about climate change in America as well as Sarah Palin, the Republican selection for vice president in 2008. In 2007, Palin was a rising star in Alaskan politics and she took on the issue of climate change. In 2007, the seasonal ice cover in Alaska had fallen to its lowest point in almost 30 years. Coastal erosion and thawing permafrost became flashpoints of looming trouble. At the time, Governor Palin stated: “Climate change is not just an environmental issue. It is also a social, cultural, and economic issue important to all Alaskans…. As a result of this warming, coastal erosion, thawing permafrost, retreating sea ice, record forest fires, and other changes are affecting, and will continue to affect, the lifestyles and livelihoods of Alaskans.” Brilliant.

What happened? Once Palin joined the Republican ticket, within 12 months, she dismissed climate science as “snake oil.”  However, during Palin’s term as governor, she brought in consultants to find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s oil industry, and she hired consultants to deal with the crumbling infrastructure from excessive flooding and erosion caused by the climate change she had clearly identified as a statewide problem that needed to be dealt with.

Nowadays, the politicians in Alaska, very much aware of the changes in the polar region, are positioning Alaska as a gateway for shipping traffic and production of oil beneath the increasingly ice-free seas of Arctic waters. And Palin’s brief legacy of concern about a viciously changing climate evaporated into thin air.  Poof. Gone.

According to the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies, Kansas will be 4 degrees warmer in winter without Arctic ice, which regularly generates cold air masses that flow southward into the U.S. But, with an ice-less Arctic, this legacy of cool Arctic air serving to regulate the climate in the U.S. will be mostly gone. 

The problem for Kansas will be bad news for the wheat farmers’ requirement for freezing temperatures to grow winter wheat and, during summer days, rob Kansas of precious soil moisture, drying out valuable wheat crop. Which means Kansas will increasingly depend upon one of the world’s largest aquifers, which is already drying up in certain locations, even if drought conditions are not present. There really is nothing more to say.


Robert Hunziker is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.