Prof. explains Alaskan climate shifts
By Stephen Kirkpatrick, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, May 14, 2010
Unless shifts in the global climate are addressed, they could pose major problems for local communities that rely on particular environmental conditions to maintain their traditional way of life, University of Alaska-Fairbanks ecology professor Terry Chapin said in a lecture on Thursday in Steele Hall.
Chapin used native Alaskan communities to illustrate the hazardous impact of global climate change on regional ecosystems and societies. Many of the boundaries between these native communities correspond to boundaries between different Alaskan climate zones, indicating that changes in climate conditions could disrupt local living habits, he said.
Higher temperature ranges in Alaska have resulted in changes in environmental conditions, including the melting of permafrost, increased insect outbreaks among tree populations and a sharp spike in forest fires, according to Chapin.
Forest fires have been of particular concern to Alaskan communities, Chapin said.
As recently as 75 years ago, rural populations in Alaska were more nomadic and subsistence-based, making them better suited to adapt to fires as they occurred, according to Chapin. But as the communities modernized and gradually established more permanent settlements, they are more likely to face resources shortages, particularly as wildfires occur more frequently, he said.
Chapin said that in order to combat such problems, communities must both reduce their vulnerability to potential dangers and adapt their communities’ infrastructures and activities. He detailed several sustainable changes that Alaskan communities could take to accomplish these goals, such as harvesting flammable plant life surrounding the communities to create biofuels — a solution that would both avert catastrophic fires and help ease the groups’ energy crisis.
Ultimately, the effects of climate change on local communities cannot be fully addressed until action to limit climate change takes place around the world, Chapin said.
Global temperatures and climates have remained largely stable over the last 10,000 years, during which most human societies emerged, according to Chapin. In the industrial era, however, climate change has rapidly accelerated, as have nitrogen flows and biodiversity loss, he said. He added that such changes have either already exceeded or are likely to exceed what scientists consider to be sustainable levels.
Actions must be taken not only to slow the occurrence of climate change, but also to combat its consequences, Chapin said in an interview with The Dartmouth following the lecture. He said society is “already committed” to the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, but those effects can be minimized if societies alter their behavior.
Typically, larger change occurs only after individuals and communities alter their behaviors to be more sustainable, according to Chapin.
“We can attack [climate change] at all levels,” he said. “Actions on a community level can have a huge impact in terms of what [people] do and who they talk to,” he said.
He added that individuals must educate themselves on climate change issues in order to increase general knowledge of its potential challenges.
“It’s important to learn enough about climate change to explain it to other people,” he said. “We’ll go a long way if we are more proactive.”