Far North Science

News, research and natural acts from Alaska

November 20th, 2007
Updated November 20, 2007 @ 9:59 am

Alaska’s top CO2 producers

fwpowerplantusace.jpg
Fort Wainwright Central Heating and Power Plant
Source: USACE

Consider the truism: Think Globally, Act Locally.

With the weekend release of the synthesis report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — warning of a planetary catastrophe that will hit the Arctic hard — snow-drenched Alaskans ought to mull over carbon emissions produced by the state’s 241 power plants and consider whether any of them can be reduced or even eliminated.

For instance: Two military powerplants in Fairbanks rank among the “dirtiest” facilities in the United States — in terms of the total carbon emissions spewed per megawatt of electricity produced, according to a new report posted online by the group Carbon Monitoring for Action.

The report — with an easily searchable database — also lists a number of relatively tiny power plants in Alaska villages that share the same top-of-the-scale “intensity” for emissions-per-megawatt. Even though their total emissions remain miniscule on the world stage.

Not so for the military facilities. Both the Eielson Air Force Base plant and the Fort Wainwright Central Heating and Power Plant produce about 6,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt of electricity. That’s more than five times the emission intensity of the state’s largest electrical producer, the gas turbine plant operated by Chugach Electric Association at Beluga.

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November 17th, 2007
Updated November 17, 2007 @ 9:07 am

Climate change: Not always about temperatures

alaska_ncdc-oct07.jpg
Source: NCDC

Here’s a climate conundrum for Alaskans. Even as the home planet continues to sizzle through one of the warmest years on record — with unprecedented sea ice shrinkage and the warmest Northern Hemisphere ever seen — America’s Arctic state hardly warmed at all.

Alaska’s most recent climate stats once again show cooler average temperatures than those seen globally or even in the contiguous U.S. (Excepting Barrow and Alaska’s northwest Arctic Coast, where open water continues to keep things exceptionally warm.)

The figures published last week by the National Climate Data Center won’t exactly trigger head-for-the-bunker panic among the pocket-protector types in the supercomputer labs. Consider:

  • Alaska had its 37th coolest October since records began in 1918, with a temperature 0.23 °F above the 1971-to-2000 average.
  • Alaska had its 17th warmest August-October on record, with a temperature 2.03 °F above the 1971-to-2000 average.
  • Alaska had its 24th warmest January-October on record, with a temperature 0.58 °F above the 1971-to-2000 average.

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November 16th, 2007

Northern Hemisphere heats the planet

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Source: NCDC

It’s still getting warmer out there. In its monthly climate roundup for the home planet, the National Climate Data Center reports that the first 10 months of 2007 flat out sizzled in the Northern Hemisphere.

Northern land masses logged the highest average temperatures since weather dudes began etching reliable records some 127 years ago — more than 2 °F above the long-term average and significantly above any previous record.

The southern hemisphere was no slouch, either, with land and ocean brewing up the ninth warmest year-to-date on record.

These new climate figures come only days before the release of the final synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — that zany group of supercomputer jockeys who just shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. Watch for news of this final chapter, with recommendations for what people can do to head off planetary disaster, over the coming weekend.

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November 15th, 2007
Updated November 16, 2007 @ 7:45 am

Arctic surf threatens Shishmaref

Shishmaref house falls over
Storms have undercut houses in Shishmaref
Source: Shishmaref Relocation Coalition

It’s the return of an annual erosion nightmare for Alaskans living in barrier island villages along the Chukchi Sea. Once again, Shishmaref faces another storm with potential to consume more its diminishing beach.

A legacy of the 2007 record meltback of sea ice, a vast expanse of open ocean now stretches for hundreds of miles off Alaska’s Northwest coast. (See the current sea ice analysis.) The relatively warm fall weather has not built shore-fast shelves of ice that could armor the beaches from surf. Add in a 40 mph north gusts and the possibility of 12-foot waves against exposed permafrost of the beach bluffs — and Shishmaref may suffer yet more damage to a sea wall intended to buy time until the village can move to a safer location.

“Everybody’s kind of anxious, but we’ll just have to see what the storm does, I guess,” said Tony Weyiouanna, Shishmaref’s transportation planner, told the Anchorage Daily News in a story published Thursday. “This is supposed to be one of the worst storms so far for this year.”

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November 15th, 2007
Updated November 15, 2007 @ 2:12 pm

How the Arctic Ocean swivels its hips

jplarcticdevice.jpg
Here is an Arctic Bottom Pressure Recorder
deployed to the Arctic Ocean floor to monitor changes
in Arctic Ocean circulation.

Round and round it goes, and where it stops, the ice still floes.

Or at least that’s what a team of scientists — equipped with a gravity-detecting satellite and ocean-bottom sensors — have discovered about a dramatic reversal in the power and direction of air and ocean currents circulating around the North Pole.

This Arctic Oscillation — one of the main drivers of weather in the Northern Hemisphere — has stopped moving as it did during the 1990s, suggesting that the causes of the climate change may be even more complicated than we thought.

“Our study confirms many changes seen in upper Arctic Ocean circulation in the 1990s were mostly decadal in nature, rather than trends caused by global warming,” said lead scientist James Morison, with University of Washington’s Polar Science Center Applied Physics Laboratory, in an online news story from the Jet Propulsion Lab.

“While some 1990s climate trends, such as declines in Arctic sea ice extent, have continued, these results suggest at least for the ‘wet’ part of the Arctic — the Arctic Ocean — circulation reverted to conditions like those prevalent before the 1990s,” he added.

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November 8th, 2007
Updated November 9, 2007 @ 9:47 am

October’s ocean breezes warm Far North

Time for a quick climate update. A batch of warm weather may not prove anything, even in the Far North, where the looming afternoon outlook is almost always colder, darker, snowier, icier and rainier than anyone can remember. (If you don’t believe me, just mutter to a random stranger in Anchorage — “Man, the weather sure seems weird” — and stand back.)

Still, the weather in Barrow has been downright balmy. As University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist Martha Shulski points out in the latest climate news from the Alaska Climate Research Center, it’s been one of the warmest Octobers on record for America’s most northern town.

The average temperature of 23.4 °F was almost 9 °F warmer than normal and ranks in the top 10 warmest Octobers. … The average high temperature was 26 °F, about 7° above average, and the average low temperature was 20 °F, almost 11 °F above average.

Blame the Chukchi Sea, still largely unfrozen after the most extensive meltback in modern history. The rest of the state has been mixed, says Shulski.

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November 3rd, 2007

Boreal Buzz: CO2 sink or source?

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Wildfires have consumed 17 million acres in Alaska
since 1998, delivery vast quantities of CO2 into the air.
Source: AFS gallery

It’s one of the world’s most extensive and least visited ecosystems — the vast boreal forest that circles the Far North in a band of horizon-spanning conifer forests.

Reaching from the Siberian taiga through Alaska’s Yukon basin to the remote fringes of Nunavut in Canada, the Boreal world covers 17 percent of the planet’s land mass, home to raven and brown bear, complex Native cultures and unique languages, spawning salmon and Northern pike, caribou and moose and wolverine.

And it’s also one of the world’s largest reservoirs of carbon. And it’s this characteristic that has got scientists worried, especially with climate change simultaneously drying out and warming up the boreal world.

Does this immense ecosystem suck up CO2 from the atmosphere, mitigating one major trigger of global warming as it soars to the highest levels in 650,000 years. Or is the boreal forest poised to release tremendous quantities of greenhouse gas from warming peat and wildfires?

The boreal world has been burning. Consider Alaska: During the past 10 years, 4,773 fires have consumed more than 17 million acres, a rate almost double previous decades.

Several new studies focus on the role wildfires now play in boreal forests, and how that relates to the global carbon equation.

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October 30th, 2007

Traversing the Arctic

iicwg_arctic.jpg
Source: IICG

As darkness overtakes the very Far North, and the wintry plunge in temperatures starts to rebuild the depleted Arctic Ocean floes, several newsbits offer harbingers of hot change in 2008 and beyond.

With ice retreating hundreds of miles further north than at any time in the modern era, shipping to the world’s largest zinc mine on Alaska’s Chukchi Sea has been profitable, says the Puget Sound Business Journal in an article last month.

“Foss Maritime, to carry a record 1.45 million tons of zinc ore from northern Alaska’s Red Dog mine before the ice closes in again in November,” the article states. “Usually the ice returns more rapidly, limiting the loading of ore.”

Like most managers around the region, McElroy, Foss’ senior vice president of marine transportation, is conflicted about benefiting from global warming. He’s worried about damage to sea life and to the global environment.

But he knows the retreating sea ice creates opportunities for Foss Maritime Co. in Arctic regions, and like other regional companies, Foss is seeking to develop them.

McElroy is particularly interested in new petroleum resources that may become accessible if there’s more open water off the North Slope of Alaska in the summer.

“The oil development stuff, if it’s offshore and onshore, requires tug and barge work and support activities, and that’s definitely of interest to Foss,” he said. “We’re watching that closely.”

Think this sounds peachy? Can you say “Titanic”? Open water and long fetches may give the shattered ice cap more room to founder in unpredictable ways. And the ice gurus are worried.

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