How climate change policies are playing out in Alaska and Hawaii
How Climate Change Policies are Playing out in Alaska and Hawaii- Alaska and Hawaii, the newest states of the United States, represent some of its most extreme climates: Alaska in the remote Arctic and Hawaii in the tropics. Both are being affected by the increasing concentration of heat-absorbing greenhouse gases as the steady cold of Alaska and the warmth of Hawaii represent delicate ecosystems whose balance can be radically affected by subtle shifts in climate.
Alaska and Hawaii, the newest states of the United States, represent some of its most extreme climates: Alaska in the remote Arctic and Hawaii in the tropics. Both are being affected by the increasing concentration of heat-absorbing greenhouse gases as the steady cold of Alaska and the warmth of Hawaii represent delicate ecosystems whose balance can be radically affected by subtle shifts in climate.
Average temperatures in the Arctic are warming about twice as fast as the global average, while Hawaii's surface temperatures are increasing at half the global average, although this varies by elevation (temperatures at higher elevations are above the global average). The disparate effects taking place in these states offer us a window into adaptation policies that could benefit the United States as a whole.
The stable cold of the Arctic plays an important role in balancing the overall energy of the earth. Its ice reflects most of the sun's rays back to space, while its subsurface provides the cold, saline-rich waters that help drive ocean circulation patterns.
The overall cooling effect, however, is being compromised by global warming. Glaciers are melting, and the newly exposed water absorbs more heat, increasing the amount of warm air over the pole. This warm air, in turn, is changing atmospheric wind patterns, disrupting the normally tight loop of the polar vortex and allowing cold Arctic air to spill south. Research suggests this "warm Arctic/cold continents" pattern was a large factor in the heavy snows experienced in parts of the Northern Hemisphere, including the United States, in the winters of 2009 and 2010, aggravated by moisture from El Niño.
While changes in the Arctic are having a marked effect on other parts of the globe, its largest effects have arguably been on the people of the Arctic, particularly indigenous communities that depend on the land for their daily needs. That land is changing around them. Air temperatures and water temperatures are steadily increasing, and seasonal sea ice is retreating. This is making traveling on ice more dangerous and the migrations of mammals and fish less predictable. The traditional knowledge that has sustained them for millennia is becoming more and more at odds with the transforming landscape.
Some communities are also facing the eventual loss of their entire homeland. This includes Kivalina, an Alaska Native village of about 427 people perched on a thin strip of land between the Chukchi Sea and the Kivalina Lagoon. Residents trace their ancestry to the area back thousands of years to some of the first migrations into the Americas. The people originally used Kivalina as a seasonal hunting ground, but were legally and culturally encouraged by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs and Christian missionaries in the early 1900's to settle there and enroll their children in school.
Part of this new settlement depended on the formation of sea ice in early fall, hardening the island and buffering it against storms. With warming Arctic temperatures, that ice now forms as late as November or even December, leaving the shoreline exposed and vulnerable for longer periods of time. Lack of ice means the storms are growing stronger as well, as winds are traveling over the open sea for longer periods, building up more energy that is transferred to the water, creating larger waves when they hit the shore.
In 2003, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 2003 report stating that the village needed to be relocated immediately due to storm erosion from climate change, a finding backed by a 2006 Army Corps of Engineers report, which stated that Kivalina would be lost to erosion in 10 to 15 years.