Anchorage - melting permafrost, drunken trees and a climate-skeptic named Patrick

December 13, 2017

Mon 4th - 21km


As I arrived in Alaska at about midnight, it wasn’t until I woke up in the morning that I saw the full extent of the snow blanketing the streets of Anchorage. People were skating along frozen lakes, not for pleasure, but to undertake routine upkeep of the area. Christmas decorations had been threaded through fences and laced around trees, and there was a giant gingerbread house competition taking place in the centre of town. The harsh rugged scenery was beautiful as I ran along the coast, through blizzard-like conditions, looking out at the large chunks of ice floating in the sea next to me.  

 Due to the stunning landscape, there were a lot of photo opportunities. At one point, whilst struggling to advance my future career of environmental filmmaker, I met Patrick. Patrick, who was a kind-faced man donning a matching scarf and beanie combo, stopped to question why I was taking a number of uninspiring clips of commonplace garages. After I told him of my venture, he replied “like Al Gore? All Americans think Al Gore is crazy”. I thought that this may have been a bit of an exaggeration from Patrick.  He then tilted his head and kindly (but bluntly) said, “but you don’t really believe his theory that the climate is changing, do you?” The sweat on my thermal leggings was beginning to freeze at this point, and as the only answer my icy brain could think of was that there was clearly a reason that they didn’t name it climate stay-the-same, I thought it was best to just smile, mumble something vague and bid Patrick farewell.


I used the remainder of the 4.5-hour daylight period to explore the city. Given the freezing temperatures, I was surprised to learn from one local man that I was experiencing a very mild winter in Anchorage. He said that at this time of year there is usually about 6-8 feet of snow on the ground and below zero temperatures. I wasn’t certain of the temperature at the time but it sure felt below zero to me. He said that for as long as he could remember they have held the annual dog sled race in Anchorage, but that in two out of the last three years the race has been relocated to Fairbanks, a city further north, due to lack of snow. He said that they still had the ceremonial start in Anchorage (as this is part of an important tradition) however they have even had to start shipping snow in for this celebration. This man was from Nome, a small village up north where hunting and fishing for food is still commonplace. His grandmother, who is 94, told him that last year was the first time in her 94 years that the sea didn’t freeze. This made hunting very hard, she said.


However, the reason I chose to do the run in Alaska was not to talk about snow levels or glacier melt. It was due to, what I believe, is the single most concerning effect of global warming – permafrost melt.  Permafrost might not initially seem to be the sexiest topic for a blog, however it's actually pretty interesting.  Permafrost is a layer of soil below the earth’s surface that remains permanently frozen throughout the year, containing carbon-rich plant and organic matter that froze before it could decompose. About 85% of Alaska is built on layers of permafrost, extending tens or even hundreds of feet below ground. However, as the area warms, the permafrost begins to thaw.


The most visible example of permafrost melt is the sinking-sand type effect in many parts of the region. Houses and infrastructure are subsiding, roads are dipping by up to a metre in some places, and what the media has dubbed “the drunken tree effect” is apparent in many of the northern forests where trees have begun to grow on extreme angles. [Photo credit - National Geographic]


 Many villages in Alaska that are built on permafrost are being forced to relocate due to the settlements sinking and the river and sea water seeping in. Last year the inhabitants of Shishmaref voted to move the entire village due to the threat of erosion and rising sea levels. And in Newtok, the township’s barge landing and landfill have already disappeared and it is expected that its source of drinking water will be lost this year, followed by its school and airport in 2020.  In the last 60 years, Newtok has lost 3 miles of shoreline and it’s currently in the process of moving to a new site 9 miles away. As you’ll appreciate, however, moving an entire village is no easy task – for a start, it  costs millions of dollars. With a number of other villages in a similar predicament, and recent focus being turned towards the destruction caused by hurricanes, the necessary funding for these villages is not forthcoming. Just last month it was decided that a $3m US grant that was originally earmarked for the relocation of Newtok will now be given to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough to buy out homes along the eroding banks of the Matanuska river. Out of the 213 Alaskan villages, 184 are in danger of sinking and coastal erosion, and about 31 of these need to be resettled immediately. 


[Photo credit - in-habitat and New York Times]


However, the most concerning consequence of permafrost melt, is the carbon that is being released into the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws. There is 1,500 billion metric tons of organic carbon frozen in the Arctic soil. Until now, the permafrost has been acting as a giant freezer, storing this carbon for tens of thousands of years. The power to the freezer appears to have now been cut, resulting in carbon and methane being released back into the air. It is estimated that Arctic permafrost contains around twice as much carbon as is currently in the earth’s atmosphere and scientists have predicted that the thawing process could contribute 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit to global warming over the next few hundred years, regardless of what we do to reduce carbon emissions from other activities. Therefore, if all the Arctic permafrost was to melt, this would undoubtedly contribute to a huge change in climate and disastrous knock-on effects. It is a vicious cycle in that temperatures are rising causing permafrost to melt, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise and more permafrost to melt.

 And carbon isn’t the only thing that is trapped in permafrost:

  • Recent outbreaks of long forgotten diseases in certain Arctic areas have been attributed back to the melting tundra. Last year, over 20 people on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia contracted anthrax, and one boy died. This would not be an uncommon occurrence in the region, aside from the fact that no one in the area has contracted anthrax for 75 years. It was thought that the carcass of a reindeer that had been infected with the disease had been frozen beneath the ground. As the permafrost melted, long dormant spores of the infectious bacteria were released, infecting herds of reindeer and, eventually, people.

  • As mentioned above, it is not only carbon dioxide that is being released when permafrost melts, but also methane (which is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas).  Scientists in Russia have found thousands of pockets of trapped permafrost-related methane in Siberia. This has resulted in the surface above becoming unstable and shaky and has even begun to cause massive explosions where methane gas has erupted, leaving giant craters in the ground.

    Given that these effects of global warming are so apparent in the Alaskan region, I was surprised to meet people like Patrick who don’t believe that climate change is occurring. Patrick was right about one thing though: on review of the garage footage, I realised that instead of low-angle and “artsy”, the photos were lopsided and ill-lit. Further, it was both extremely uninteresting and in no way relevant to climate change. It has since been deleted. Thanks Patrick.


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