Tags:Editor's note: Xpress reporter Rebecca Bowe was part of a team of journalists invited by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism to travel to Alaska Aug. 13-16 to view the on-the-ground effects of climate change. Her experiences there provided some of the material for this article.
What if Asheville were hotter year-round than Atlanta is now? That could be what's in store by the end of the century if global carbon-dioxide emissions continue to rise at their current rate, according to Tom Peterson of the National Climatic Data Center. A computer model developed by the data center predicts that Asheville's average temperature would rise 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of 2099 -- making it slightly higher than Atlanta's present-day average.
"If our temperature was like Atlanta, we would be building houses differently, we would be growing different trees here, there would be different trees in the forest, there would be different crops," Peterson points out. "So it makes for a significant change."
And if 2099 seems comfortingly remote, consider this: Asheville's average temperature has already started climbing. "In general, temperatures have been rising," says Karsten Shein, acting director of the data center's climate-modeling branch. "Our average temperature between 1903 and 2007 has increased a little over half a degree. The average maximum temperature for each year has gone up by almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit."
Perhaps you haven't noticed. Although climate change is a hot topic in Asheville, it's still more of an abstract concept than a life-altering phenomenon at this point (for a reality check, see sidebar, "Burn, Baby, Burn.") But go to one of the planet's northernmost regions, Alaska, and global warming is hard to miss.
Glaciers in the Kenai Peninsula are receding faster than ever. Millions of acres of forests have been ravaged by pests that thrive in warmer temperatures. Farther north, the permafrost is thawing both more deeply and at higher latitudes than before, and coastal villages are finding themselves exposed to violent storms as their protective barrier -- sea ice -- vanishes.
But we live in an age of global awareness, and changes in the distant Arctic haven't gone unnoticed here in Western North Carolina. The Asheville-based National Climatic Data Center, the world's largest repository of weather information, supplies the stats that the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses to produce its climate-change assessments. In that sense, our area is influencing the understanding of an issue that literally affects the whole world as we know it.
Climate scientists emphasize that no single weather event -- be it a heat wave in Europe, Hurricane Katrina or a severe drought in Western North Carolina -- can be directly pegged to climate change. That said, the IPCC has cautioned that violent downpours, droughts and other sorts of extreme weather will become more likely as the climate shifts. But scientists base their findings on averages and long-term trends, not on ever-shifting extremes. As Shein puts it, "There's a big difference between weather and climate."
"It's tough for people to comprehend this single global number as being something significant," he says, referring to the rise in the average global temperature. "In fact, it's made up of data from 20,000 stations around the world taking daily weather observations. They take all this together, then they boil it down into this one number."
It took decades for scientists to reach consensus on the concept of human-induced climate change, notes Doug Causey, vice provost for research and graduate studies at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. But after reviewing the long-term data and sounding it out with experts from every corner of the globe, the evidence became impossible to ignore.
The IPCC issued its first climate-change assessment back in 1990 -- but for many folks, it still hasn't sunk in. "You can go back far enough in Earth's history and find carbon-dioxide levels that were higher than they are now," says Causey. "The strongest point is ... the speed at which it's increasing." As an analogy, he says, picture a car backing up slowly toward a garage. If that same car were to rocket backward at full speed, it would travel the same distance, but with a terrible impact.
Satellite images of the Arctic ice cap confirm that the summer sea-ice cover has been shrinking dramatically over the last half-century. On her first research trip to the North Pole in the summer of 1991, Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate specialist with the Washington, D.C.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, says she was shocked to see the ice separated by vast amounts of open water. The amount of frozen cover reached an all-time low in the summer of 2007 -- 23 percent below the previous record low, set in 2005 -- according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. It's still too early to tell whether 2008 will bring an even lower number, but so far, things aren't looking good. Last month, ice loss averaged 30,000 square miles per day, the center reports -- the highest figure scientists have ever observed in August. Since the 1950s, the center estimates, summer sea ice may have declined by as much as 50 percent. As a result, the fabled Northwest Passage is now open for the first time in human memory.
This trend spells trouble for polar bears, ringed seals and other marine life for which summer sea ice represents critical habitat. But the diminishing Arctic ice cap also has significant implications for weather patterns worldwide. Worse yet, the process creates a kind of feedback loop: As reflective polar ice disappears and dark ocean is exposed, more solar rays are absorbed, fueling further melting. "We're losing our air conditioner in the north," says Ekwurzel.
Asheville resident Drew Jones, who heads up the Southeast office of the Vermont-based Sustainability Institute, puts it this way: "The polar ice cap is melting. That is our canary in the coal mine."
From Asheville to Copenhagen
When Xpress caught up with Jones, he was preparing for a trip to Greenland to "watch the glaciers melt. There's a group of European businesspeople who are very concerned about climate change," he explained, though he wasn't at liberty to identify the businesses. "The European heat wave several years ago was their Katrina." (The 2003 heat wave, which logged some of Europe's hottest summer temperatures ever, caused 35,000 deaths, according to the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington-based environmental think tank.) After touring some glaciers with the group, Jones planned to lead them in an exercise using a computer game designed to help people truly grasp the implications of climate change.
Jones, who studied environmental engineering and systems dynamics at Dartmouth and MIT, also teaches systems dynamics at UNCA. Among other things, his work at the Sustainability Institute involves serving as a consultant to companies that want to green their practices. But what's attracted the most attention lately is the Climate Bathtub Simulator he and a partner created. A video produced by Morgan Stanley's Office of the Environment last winter features Jones employing the simulator to deliver a tutorial on climate change.
The game uses a bathtub as a metaphor for the atmosphere. The player decides how much "water" (carbon dioxide) flows in. If the level gets too high (the threshold is an atmospheric concentration of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide), the bathtub overflows -- and in the real world, severe consequences kick in. If current emissions are allowed to continue unabated, the bathtub will overflow in the year 2035.
"If we're going to make decisions about long-term trends," says Jones, "we have to get to the point where my grandmother could understand what we're trying to say." A few major corporations, including Nike and Citibank, have given the Sustainability Institute funding to help disseminate the simulator, notes Jones.
Ultimately, he hopes the bathtub simulator can be used to prep delegates to the 15th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who will travel to Copenhagen in December 2009 to hash out an international agreement on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. Such a treaty would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
Although the bathtub's overflow point is meant to dramatize what it would take to stabilize carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, says Jones, balancing the climate would require more drastic measures. "Stabilizing the climate means an end to burning fossil fuels by 2050," he says. That would reduce the global concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million. Today, we're hovering somewhere around 387 parts per million. And if business as usual continues unabated, we're on track to triple the global concentration by 2100, according to the IPCC.
Greenland isn't the only place one can travel to watch glaciers melt. All over the world, ancient land-based ice masses are on the move, says Ekwurzel. And as fresh water spills into the sea, it contributes directly to sea-level rise. Between 1961 and 2003, sea level rose by an average of 1.8 millimeters per year, according to the IPCC's 2007 assessment. And between 1993 and 2003, sea level was rising by about 3.1 millimeters per year.
Looking ahead, the enormous Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets would seem to be, hands down, the biggest players in future sea-level rise. If they melted entirely, each one has the potential to raise sea levels by 16 to 23 feet. A global temperature rise of 3.6 degrees to 9 degrees Fahrenheit might irreversibly destabilize the Greenland sheet, according to NASA, but it would take centuries to melt entirely. Still, such a temperature rise lies within the range of several climate projections for the 21st century.
In Alaska, you don't need to look far to find a shrinking glacier. Portage Glacier, near Anchorage, has receded nine miles in the past century. And a visitors' center built to showcase the natural wonder no longer does: Over the past 14 years, the ice mass has retreated around a corner in the distance. Compared with all the receding glaciers in Patagonia, the western United States and the Asian highlands, Alaskan glaciers are expected to be hit the hardest -- and thus to contribute the most to sea-level rise. "You are right at the epicenter," Ekwurzel told her small audience in Seward, Alaska.
A boat tour that goes up to the face of the Aialik Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park lets visitors see ice split away from the 400-foot-high, mile-wide mass right before their eyes. Up close, that glacier seems volatile. The blue tower of ice pops and cracks, and occasionally a hefty mass will calve with a low roar and plummet into the frigid water, stirring up waves and gulls.
The 10,000-year-old Exit Glacier, near Seward, is one of more than 35 that flow from the massive Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords. It's been in steady retreat for more than a century; a series of markers show how far the edge once extended. In the past decade alone, it's retreated some 1,000 feet; it's also getting noticeably thinner, park rangers report.
In August of 2005, newspapers reported that a delegation from Washington -- including Sens. John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- visited Exit Glacier as part of a global-warming-themed tour. "The question is, how much damage will be done before we start taking concrete action," McCain stated upon his return. "Go up to places like we just came from: It's a little scary."
McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, however, has stated publicly that she doesn't think global warming is human-induced. In an interview in Newsmax several weeks ago, she said: "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state, because of our location. I'm not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made."
At this stage of the game, says Ekwurzel, the biggest contributor to sea-level rise has actually been not melting ice but warmer oceans. Since 1950, the oceans have absorbed 20 times as much heat-trapping gases as the atmosphere has, according to a calculation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Not included in the IPCC's projections is evidence that further warming could reduce the oceans' ability to absorb that much CO2 -- leading to an even greater atmospheric CO2 concentration, says Ekwurzel. For now, "The oceans are saving us from ourselves," she says. "If you were to take all that heat and release it to the atmosphere instantly, you would boil off our atmosphere." As the water has gotten warmer, it's also plumped up -- a process known as thermal expansion.
"If you increase temperature, sea level will rise," says Asheville scientist Leonard Bernstein, a lead author of a section of the 2007 IPCC report, whose authors shared in that year's Nobel Peace Prize. "Ocean water is going to expand, and when it expands it's only got one way to go -- and it's up."
Playing the odds
While a rise in sea level is a guaranteed result of climate change, things like hurricanes and wildfires fall into the category of probable effects. One risk, for example, is that up to 30 percent of plant and animal species could face extinction if the global average temperature increases more than 3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit relative to 1980 - 1999 temperatures, according to the IPCC. Many projections suggest that the low end of this range could be reached by midcentury.
"It's a matter of playing the odds," says Bernstein. "The more climate change you have, the worse the odds get."
Another such problem is pest infestations, which scientists say are likely to become more common as temperatures rise. In Alaska, some 3 million acres of spruce have been destroyed over the last several decades by a native pest, the spruce-bark beetle, which thrived during a series of warmer-than-average summers. "Everything that could be killed was," said Ed Berg, an ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, during a tour of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, where patches of ghostlike dead spruce still stand. Historically, noted Berg, a cycle of several warmer years followed by cooler ones has kept these kinds of outbreaks at bay. But during this massive infestation, the typically warm summers were even hotter, and the normally cooler winters were weaker. "The cycle is still there," said Berg, "but everything is amped up."
Spruce-bark-beetle outbreaks have happened before, but this is an extreme example. Still, Bernstein voices some skepticism that this kind of pest infestation can be attributed directly to global warming. "Climate change could be a factor, but there are a lot of other factors when you talk about pest infestations," he cautions.
Other changes in the wildlife refuge suggest that it's drying out. Coring samples tell scientists that for nearly 14,000 years, the peat wetlands have been dominated by sphagnum moss. Walking through these fens is much like traversing a giant trampoline: If you jump up and down, 22 feet of spongy moss bounces beneath your feet. But in the last several decades -- for the first time in thousands of years -- some shrubs have started taking root in the fens, and trees are crowding in around the perimeter. That may not seem like such a problem to the casual observer, but in the big picture, says Berg, it's a drastic change that signifies a serious decline in the ecosystem's water supply.
Bernstein, who previously worked on environmental issues for Mobil, sees himself as a centrist in the spectrum of opinion concerning climate change. And overall, he takes a much more optimistic view than, say, the movie An Inconvenient Truth.
"We are going to see climate-change impacts," says Bernstein. "There's just no way that the world can turn around its economic system quickly enough at this point to avoid some significant change. But I don't belong to the catastrophe school. I think the Jim Hansens and Al Gores of the world" -- Hansen is a NASA scientist who's been very outspoken about catastrophic climate change -- "It may be necessary for them to be out there screaming disaster to get action, but I think the reality is that the impact's going to be a lot smaller than you would be led to believe.
"Because the assumption that goes into those [worst-case-scenario] impacts is that the world sits around and does nothing, at least until 2100. And that's no longer a valid assumption. You've got a small portion of the world that is very serious about this; you've got a larger portion of the world that is thinking seriously about it. So things are going to happen. And a scenario that says we sit around until 2100 just doesn't make sense."
Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, began issuing serious warnings about climate change -- including testifying before Congress -- in the late 1980s. Since then, the nation's carbon-dioxide emissions have ballooned by nearly 20 percent, and global emissions have climbed 34 percent. Meanwhile, the Bush administration declined to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and China -- now experiencing a tremendous growth spurt fueled in part by coal -- has surpassed the United States as the world's No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases.
Hansen recently traveled to Kent, England, to testify on behalf of activists who had defaced a power plant to protest global warming. "You should try to do things through the democratic process, but we really are getting to an emergency situation," Hansen was quoted as saying. "We can't continue to build more coal-fired power plants that do not capture CO2 if we hope to solve the problem."
As Ekwurzel puts it, "Really, it's a choice of how hot the planet's going to be, and how much sea-level rise we'll have. ... The largest uncertainties going forward are our activities."
Alaska is almost two-and-a-half times the size of Texas, and all of it -- snow-capped peaks, jagged coastline, humpbacks in the ocean and moose grazing along a bike trail -- seems to exist on a grander scale. Face to face with the Aialik Glacier, watching portions of that astounding tower of ice calve with a roar and spill into the sea, one tends to feel small and insignificant. It seems far easier to imagine perishing in the harsh Alaskan environment than to envision having any sort of effect on it. Yet collectively, that seems to be exactly what we're doing.
Meanwhile, back in Western North Carolina, a severe drought has been in effect for more than a year now, and the French Broad River has dipped to its lowest level in more than a century. Is the drought a direct result of climate change?
It's tough to say, responds Shein of the National Climatic Data Center. The current drought ranks among the most significant on record for the region, and it comes at a time of generally rising temperatures, but it's not the worst one ever. "We had an even worse one back in 2002," notes Shein, referencing the center's data. (That data, by the way, has been in increasing demand as people have become more aware of the reality of climate change. Shein says the center has had a much higher volume of requests for weather and climate figures.)
And as the climate shifts, the region's future rainfall becomes harder to project, says Peterson, who was also a lead author of the IPCC report. "We're very uncertain about how precipitation will change in WNC," he notes. "About half the models are showing an increase, and about half the models are showing a decrease. What we can say is this: If the temperature increases and the precipitation stays the same, then there will be an increase in the amount of evaporation -- so there could be water stress."
But whatever the future brings, Asheville has already made a commitment to taking action. In 2005, then Mayor Charles Worley joined mayors nationwide in agreeing to reduce the carbon footprint stemming from municipal operations by 2 percent per year, and Warren Wilson College has agreed to help the city reach that target. The Southern Energy and Environment Expo, held last month at the WNC Agricultural Center, showcased renewable-energy technologies and green-building materials that are starting to catch on in the region. A-B Tech's business-incubator program is helping green entrepreneurs develop clean technologies and bring them to market, and companies such as the Fletcher-based Appalachian Energy, which sells solar power systems, are already well-established. A host of local nonprofit organizations, such as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the WNC Alliance, are also working on climate-change issues.
When it comes to reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, energy efficiency gives "far away the biggest bang for the buck," says Bernstein, whose work with the IPCC focused on climate-change mitigation. A number of efforts -- including the city of Asheville's decision to hire a sustainability coordinator and the INSULATE! program launched by Warren Wilson's Environmental Leadership Center -- have begun working toward that end. Meanwhile, Asheville members of Rising Tide, an international activist network, have sought to shed light on the urgency of climate change via less conventional means, such as locking themselves to construction equipment at the site of Duke Energy's Cliffside power plant in Rutherford County.
Yet there's still much work to be done, both on the local level and beyond. "We've squandered eight years going backward," sputters SEE Expo founder Ned Doyle. "Eight years have gone by, and we're worse off than we were in 2000. We are at a significant point.
"We know we have solutions," he continues. "We just have to employ them, and we need to do it now. I'm sick of waiting."