BIG PICTURE: Climate Change in Alaska

BIG PICTURE: Climate Change in Alaska

“For us, it’s like someone moved the subsistence calendar by a month and nobody told us. We wonder what it must be like for the animals, plants and fish.”

Climate change is happening fastest at the earth’s higher latitudes, steadily turning Alaska into a new, warmer place.  These changes are particularly powerful in northern and western Alaska, where temperatures shift from mostly below to often above freezing.  This “phase change” transforms places historically dominated by snow, sea ice, and permafrost into to a melting world, of open oceans and rain, where even the seemingly solid ground beneath your feet begins to melt.

PHASE CHANGE: Welcome to a new Alaska

From 1970–2015, northwestern Alaska warmed 2 ½ times faster than the global average – a predicted increase of +7.3° F per century, compared to +3.0° F per century for the planet as a whole. Future average regional temperature is likely to increase by +7° F by the 2040s and +13° F by the 2080s.

These changes are enormous, equal to or greater than the magnitude of change from the ice ages to our current climate.

What do these changes mean?

  • Sea ice is becoming thinner and is present for a shorter period
  • Precipitation patterns are changing, with less snow and more rain
  • Growing seasons are expanding, changing the distribution of plants, fish, birds and other animals
  • Ocean is warming and acidifying, changing the food chain that supports so much of Alaska life
  • Permafrost is melting, disrupting roads, buildings, infrastructure

All these trends are projected to increase

The Bottom Line

These changes mean a transition from an environment with average temperature 10°F below freezing, no trees, where humans and wildlife rely on predictable sea ice, to one where the average annual temperature is above freezing, trees can grow, and spring and fall sea ice is rare, if it exists at all.

Jeremy Little, AK Climate Science Center, based on UAF SNAP (Scenarios Network for Alaska/Arctic Planning) data

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