In part 1 of Forecast – A Fragile Climate, Tom Skilling and the team travel to Alaska
WGN Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling leads the special series Forecast – A Fragile Climate. In his 50 years as a meteorologist, he’s seen the atmosphere do things he never thought possible. That’s what drove him and the WGN team to scour the country for the latest climate research and information. They met with NASA scientists, water experts in a drought-ridden Southwest, and climatologists in Alaska. Serious work is underway – from tracking the Earth’s vital signs to massive climate adaptation projects. There’s a lot of material to cover and, as Skilling says, “We’re just the tip of the iceberg!”
In Part 1, Skilling visits his beloved Alaska and climbs glaciers that change shape and size before our eyes.
Of all the ice-covered regions in the world — places like Greenland, Antarctica, and the Alps — one of the largest contributions to global sea level rise comes from Alaska. Runoff from melting glaciers ends up in our oceans. And as snow and ice decrease, Alaska contributes a disproportionate amount of heat to the entire Earth system.
In other words, what happens in Alaska doesn’t stay in Alaska.
The Klco trail guide, who worked with Skilling and the WGN team, knows every contour and crevice along the silty ice of the Matanuska Glacier.
“(Matanuska Glacier) is a valley glacier. It really goes up gradually. It’s about 6000 feet up the first 20 miles and then there’s another seven miles of glacier,” he said. “We get 365 new feet of glacier every year, about 395 feet melt. So on average, we lose 10 meters per year off the terminus.
Dr. Brian Brettschneider is a National Weather Service climatologist. He went to high school in suburban Chicago, but has lived in Alaska for 17 years.
“Everyone here knows the climate is changing,” he said. “People in Alaska, you notice it everywhere. There are glaciers that you see on the highway, and they’re disappearing.
There is great concern here. The Arctic is warming at least three times faster than other parts of the planet.
More than 200 miles south of the Matanuska Glacier, runoff from a shrinking Exit Glacier passes through a rock basin.
“Not long ago this area would have been covered in ice,” said Laura Sturtz, director of interpretation and education at Kenai Fjords National Park. “We can tell by the moraines, or boulders, he left behind when he stopped in place. … We’re only 11, 12 miles from going into the ocean here, so the water melting from Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield drains into the ocean and contributes to sea level rise across the globe If there is less ice on land, there is more in the ocean.
“So if you’re in California, if you’re in Florida, if you’re in New York, a big contribution to sea level rise is coming from melting glaciers in Alaska,” Brettschneider said.
“We’re talking about this thing called arctic amplification,” he said. “Snow and ice act as a mirror for sunlight. When the sun hits the snow and ice, almost everything is reflected back into space as if it hadn’t happened. Once you heat things up, you change that energy equation. You have less snow on the ground, especially in the shoulder seasons, you have less ice in the Arctic Ocean. And so, when you remove snow and ice, the sun’s energy is completely absorbed by the ground and warms the atmosphere.
There are natural cycles in our climate, but there is nothing natural about how quickly changes are happening today, in a short time.
“One thing that can be a little misleading is that people see all this ice and you fly over and see these huge ice fields and all these glaciers, it can be a bit of a trap to think about. “Well, my God, we still have all that ice. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they say,” Brettschneider said. “It’s really what’s missing instead of what’s the.”
A number of the past 15 years have been the hottest on record.
“The cycles were first discovered by climatologists. Cycles happen over long periods of time,” Brettschneider said. “Frankly, there’s no real physical way for the climate system to change as much as it has over the past two decades with just natural forcings. It has to be something else. And the only other thing , these are greenhouse gases.
…You add gas to the atmosphere that stores heat, and that’s exactly what you’ll do. It really is that simple.
“What happens here matters to people in Chicago, Memphis, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle. The climate system really knows no boundaries,” Brettschneider said. “I’m worried, but I’m also hopeful. Things are moving in the right direction. Are they moving fast enough? This is a difficult question to answer, but we need more.
Bretschneider is right. There are some very positive things happening in efforts to switch to cleaner fuels and energy sources in an effort to reduce harmful carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. We’ll explore some of these initiatives in our series this week.
Tuesday we take you to the epicenter of Earth science, where NASA scientists build and operate some of the most sophisticated instruments that track the evolution of our planet. We go behind the scenes for a look at the serious science and technology of some of our nation’s most knowledgeable climate scientists.
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