Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Climate change is on a lot of people's minds these days. It's one of the hottest summers on record--upper 90's in the midwest and atlantic states, and dry as a bone from the west coast to the heartland. In Fairbanks this July it has been relatively dry and warm compared with a rainy May and June, with temps in the mid to upper 70's. Two weeks ago during the longest days of summer we had a week in the mid to upper 80's, the week of Matt and Stephanie's visit. And not just hot but humid too. The previous two summers were warm early and cool and wet by midsummer. Hot and humid is not what I've come to expect up here.

Joe and I have only been here three summers. The climate change skeptics (as opposed to the deniers, who don't look at the science at all but simply deny the existence of anything that would mean no more drive-through Starbucks) cite 'inter-annual variation' as a reasonable contradiction to the idea that the planet is warming, because inter-annual variation--patterns of hot or cold, wet or dry, stormy or calm weather that may characterize a season as 'unseasonal'--throws a certain amount of noise into the records, and thus the predictions.

Climate skepticism is fine, but it doesn't explain drastic things, like disappearing glaciers, shrinking sea ice, and gullies and cracks opening up in ground riddled with permafrost—it's a bit like those rich people aboard the Titanic who felt nothing more than a bump that sloshed the brandy in their snifters, so they went back to their card game. This is why animal lovers are freaking out about polar bears, people who live in the North are getting nervous, and the entities who brought you Exxon Valdez, Prudhoe Bay, and Halliburton are casting their evil eyes upon the Arctic coast and tenting their fingers like Mr. Burns. The sea ice is melting faster and forming later, the oil companies and their political cronies stand to make billions out of it, and polar bears, fisherman, and coastal Native communities are being forced to get to the back of the economic bus.

As I consider what to study up here and how to study it, and to understand its relative importance against the larger ecological and sociopolitical background, I wonder how long before the world as we know it--the world with its budding springs, lazy summers, and cold, stable winters--becomes a very different, and very harsh place to live? Many ecosystems have been wrecked at our hands, over and over. It starts with the wild things that are tasty to humans and progresses to things most sensitive to disruption, things that live in water or are rare and dependent upon specialized habitat--orchids, amphibians, birds, insects. We don't perceive these changes until the link directly impacting human survival is affected, and by then the damage has magnified like a huge wave looming into view. How long before the standard of living we so heedlessly enjoy is swept away? Two generations? One? Half a generation? When will people stop driving gasoline-powered engines? Until the oil runs out, or before then? How long is that?

I really want to know. Because it's not just about orchids and frogs now, or even weather.

At 52, I've had a pretty good run, but it will be a very different world twenty years from now, if I live to see it. If I die of old age before that, that's perhaps luckiest of all. There is no sense in pretending we will ever be able to engineer our way out of this predicament. Humanity has gone global for better or worse. There is a last-ditch plan being worked on as we speak by “climate engineers,” a way of spewing enough aerosol particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from earth and cool it down a bit (cool it down?! How god-awful and Doctor Strangelovian!). And where did such a 1950's sci-fi horror flick of an idea come from? I think scientists have been tinkering with this idea for the past couple of centuries, but current research was inspired by Mt. Pinatubo. Its eruption in 1991 was just cataclysmic enough to reduce sunlight hitting the earth by ten percent—but not to extinguish life. Thus inspired, these geniuses still need to: A) find a suitable type of material in an amount that won't poison us too much or wreck the biosphere (sulfur dioxide is a serious candidate); and B) figure out how to get it up there. I'd be curious to know if the first powerpoint lecture on this was shown at TED.

Unlike the rest of the country, our summer in the Alaskan interior has been lovely, and I am trying to soak up every minute. The hills are clad in bright green birch and poplar, the fields and meadows are glowing fuschia with fireweed, the air is fragrant with flowers and alive with winged creatures great and small. Will we ever remember a summer like this again?

Tour of Fairbanks, one month ago. Joe is just behind Tyson, at start line of last stage (over Wickersham Dome to Globe Creek).  Nothing like a bunch of racer boys in tights--

Went to Moose Mountain to look for morels. This was the third of five attempts to find any. Found none :-(

Solstice tree

Midsummer here has a living, dripping juicy quality. Summer is full-on summer. Hard to explain, best felt. Sorry about the mosquitoes this year, Steph and Matt!

Joe and I enjoyed some hot summer weather before he headed North to Toolik for a long summer shift. I will be joining him in a couple of weeks.

Stephanie and Matt came from Chicago to experience the Midnight Sun. Stephanie on alpine tundra on top of Murphy Dome.

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