Reed Magazine May 2004
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feeling the heat

While it's unlikely the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are saddled up and ready to ride, global warming will likely have an enormous and dire effect on human populations in the Arctic and beyond. Native communities that dot Alaskan shorelines already are seeing villages crumble. Waves, unhindered by large ice chunks, now swell and break against the shore with a ferocity never seen before. Banks are eroding and high water has consumed so many homes and buildings that two villages have been forced to move inland.

Because the Alaskan Arctic is warming faster than any other place in the world, it offers an ideal natural laboratory to study climate change. Unlike the rest of the world, which has warmed about one degree over the past century, the Arctic's unique landscape of mostly ice and snow magnifies temperature changes. As ice and snow melt, the terrain stops reflecting sunshine and starts absorbing heat. With this trend in a dizzying rate of motion, computer models predict that during the next century the Arctic will warm an additional seven to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Considering that the last Ice Age was spurred by a temperature difference of 13 degrees, the flowers aren't alone in their strange behavior. Over the next 100 years, climate change will accelerate, causing major physical, ecological, social, and economic changes, according to a recently released four-year scientific study of the region conducted by an international team of 300 scientists.

"There's strong consensus now in the scientific community that global climate change is caused by human activities," says Bret-Harte in her kind, matter-of-fact manner. "There are always a few folks who disagree. But mostly they work for the oil and gas industry.

"The Bush administration has not shown very much interest in science and facts at all," says Bret-Harte. "With four more years Bush will probably continue to drag his feet on addressing climate change and that's pretty scary." This attitude is infuriating for the Arctic researchers who are watching a landscape in flux.

Adds her colleague John Hobbie, co-founder of the Institute of Arctic Biology Toolik Field Station and director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Lab: "We see the possible consequences of no action and the consequences are looking graver and graver and more and more imminent. We scientists realize that climate change is more than just vague words and models."

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toolik station

Reed Magazine May