Reed Magazine May 2004
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After a decade studying global warming's Ground Zero, an Alaska ecologist hopes to communicate a global warning

By Rebecca Clarren

Thin bright light stretches taut across the late afternoon sky at Toolik Lake, an Arctic biology research site, 135 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. An expanse of golden tundra rolls unhindered toward the craggy mountains of Alaska's Brooks Range. Silver rivers and lakes, blueberries and umber hills grace the landscape.

Yet for the moment on this August afternoon, University of Alaska-Fairbanks ecologist Syndonia "Donie" Bret-Harte '83, isn't enjoying the view. As she stares at the tundra carpet with concern, her husband, Peter Ray, a retired Stanford professor of plant physiology, yells from up the hill. "Hey, Donie, you've got to come look at this. The eriophorum are efflorescing again."

Translation from science-speak: The flowers are blooming. For the second time this year. Given an atypically long season of warm weather, the flowers are confused, thinking spring is here again.

"It's a bad strategy for them because they'll lose their seeds to the frost," says Bret-Harte, looking worried behind large gold-rimmed glasses. Flowers only make one set of buds each year so if they spend next year's buds now, they'll be out of luck next spring. If the warming trend continues, the flowers may go extinct.

Lean and tall with a long black braid down her back, Bret-Harte, a Reed biology major, has spent the past 10 summers studying Arctic plants at this research site in Toolik Lake, Alaska. While it's too soon to prove statistically, she suspects that these confused flowers are just one more example of the phenomenon threatening the entire planet: global warming.

Over the past century, Bret-Harte explains, due to the increase in oil and gas consumption, carbon dioxide and methane emissions have skyrocketed. Such gases hover above the earth, trap the sun's heat, and cause the planet to warm up. In just the past three decades, this warming has heated the Arctic by nearly 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the mid-1950s, Alaska's glaciers have lost about 3,300 cubic kilometers of melted ice and snow—enough to submerge the entire state of Texas in 15 feet of water. Due in part to this influx of fresh water combined with warmer temperature, computer models predict that the Arctic Ocean's sea ice could completely disappear within 70 years.

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