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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Arctic Climate Change

Air Date: Week of

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In Barrow, Alaska, scientists are not only studying climate change, they're helping the local community do something to protect themselves from its effects. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Amanda Lynch, one of the scientists heading the project.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. This past October was the warmest October since scientists began recording global temperatures, more than 100 years ago. In England, the records go back even further--400 years. And there, too, this past October was the warmest ever. But some communities don't need weather reports to tell them things are heating up, especially in the coldest parts of the planet where warming is most pronounced.

Residents of Barrow, Alaska are seeing the permafrost beneath their houses thaw, and storms have become more frequent and more intense. So, scientists who've been researching global warming near Barrow decided to do something new--they're helping the community get ready for climate change. Amanda Lynch is an atmospheric scientist with the University of Colorado at Boulder. She says Barrow was a shoe-in for the project.

LYNCH: You don't have to sell climate change to people who live in Barrow. They see it around them all the time and they're very aware of it. They're aware of how it's affecting their daily lives. And so, we can start from a position where this is already happening, now, what do we do about it? Rather than having to explain what's happening first.

CURWOOD: What types of changes have you already seen in Barrow?

LYNCH: We've certainly seen an increase in temperatures. The snow is melting earlier in the spring, which can cause a lot of problems if people are out in their hunting camps. One person said it's often a wet ride, coming back home, because the snow melts much sooner than they expect it to. The permafrost is starting to thaw, although the last couple of years have been colder and so it's starting to freeze up again. The sea ice is retreating further out and taking a longer time to come back in, in the winter. And the storms are getting stronger and more frequent, and that's the thing that most people are worried about.

CURWOOD: So, what are the projects that you're working on with the local community to help them cope with the changes brought on by climate change?

LYNCH: Well, what we've tried to do is, I guess, a different approach, we're really taking our research based on what people up there are telling us is important to them. And so, when we go up there and we say, "Well, what are the environmental changes that are really bothering you?" In our first round of meetings everybody said it's flooding and erosion. And so, what we're trying to do is to study how flooding and erosion occurs in that area, what it depends on, how it's occurred in the past, and then we'll take a look at what might be expected for the future and see how it might change in the future.

But the additional element is that we'll also try and run scenarios of ideas that they have for adapting to the changes. So, for instance, a simple idea that some local people had was, to prevent beach erosion, would be to dump some old barges that they have sitting out on Barrier Islands, up off the coast there, to take them and dump them on the beach and shore up the beach that way. They want to know if that kind of thing, which is very cheap, might work, and so we can run a scenario, using our models, to let them know whether that has a likelihood of working or not.

CURWOOD: What other examples can you share with us of possible solutions to their problems that you are coming up together, working with them?

LYNCH: Another solution is to deal with their buried infrastructure. They have, a new thing for the town is a whole series of buried infrastructure. That is, their water, their sewage, their electricity, their cable. All of that stuff is now underground, in a utility corridor, and that's a gravity feed system, so it requires a low point for pumping, and that low point is right on the beach.

The problem is, with the design of that particular utility corridor, that if that low point gets flooded, it shuts off the entire system. And so, we've been exploring with them possibilities of being able to shut off sections of it so that if certain parts get flooded, other parts are still functional, so that they can perhaps roll back the town more gradually, rather than having to do everything in one hit.

CURWOOD: For most of us Point Barrow, or Barrow, Alaska, is really just far north, there, on the map. Describe for me the town.

LYNCH: It's a small town, it's about 5,000 people. People up there engage in a lot of hunting and fishing activities, probably more so than other places, but apart from that, it's quite typical.

CURWOOD: And what's different about Barrow, Alaska, from most other towns one would think of in the United States?

LYNCH: It has a very large proportion of Inupiat Eskimos. Also, the demands of modern life tend to take a back seat to traditional activities. So, if there's a big whale hunt on, or if there's a community celebration, then that's considered to be much more important than the kinds of everyday, modern lifestyle things, like jobs.

CURWOOD: I'm just wondering how much the people in Barrow attribute what they're seeing to climate change caused by humans. And, if they attribute a lot of it to what we people all over the planet are doing, how do they feel about how human activity--the burning of fossil fuel and so on and so forth--is affecting their lives and their community?

LYNCH: I think a lot of them do attribute it to climate change caused by human beings because they have a very long history of traditional knowledge. The elders maintain knowledge that has been passed down from one generation to another, and a lot of the elders are saying, "We haven't seen this before." But, at the same time, it's a community that relies very strongly on oil revenues for its wellbeing, so they prefer not to make the link between for instance oil drilling in Prudhoe Bay and what's happening to their community. They would rather talk about adaptation, dealing with the problems, rather than thinking about dealing with the causes.

CURWOOD: Amanda Lynch is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Colorado. Thanks for speaking with me.

LYNCH: No problem.



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