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Global warming could be good and bad for Alaska

Posted: Tuesday, February 27, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Rising global temperatures could bring both good news and bad news to Alaska, with effects ranging from longer growing seasons for farmers to building collapses as permafrost melts in the Interior, an expert told lawmakers Monday.

Alaska has already experienced a 10-degree temperature increase in recent decades as worldwide use of fossil fuels has pumped carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, said Gunter Weller, a retired University of Alaska geophysics professor and executive director of Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.

''All of us who live in Alaska know that the winters are much warmer,'' Weller told the House Resources Committee.

The carbon dioxide acts like the glass in greenhouse, allowing sunlight in, but keeping heat from escaping, Weller said. Worldwide, temperatures have increased by 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century or so, but regions in higher latitudes, including Alaska, have heated up faster, he said.

The results are milder winters, thinner ice and melting permafrost, changes that are only going to increase in the future as an increasingly industrialized world continues to produce greehhouse gases, Weller said.

But while higher temperatures could wreak havoc with Lower 48 farming and drown low-lying coastal areas, Weller said the news isn't all bad. He laid out a series of possible pluses, minuses and unknowns for increasing temperatures in Alaska.

The downside:

--Decreasing sea ice means fewer walrus and seals for subsistence hunters.

--Increased coastal erosion hampers oil and gas production on shore facilities and artificial islands.

--Melting permafrost causing building collapses and problems with roads, airstrips, power cables and pipelines.

--Stormier weather hinders fishermen.

The upside:

--Less sea ice eases offshore oil and gas operations.

--Decreased sea and river ice aids shipping.

--Longer growing season aids agriculture.

Unknown:

--Ocean changes could be good or bad -- or both -- for fishing.

--The timber industry could benefit from faster-growing trees in warmer weather, but suffer from more severe fires and insect outbreaks.

--Hydropower might benefit or suffer because warmer weather might mean less rain and snow or more precipitation.

Weller's presentation drew a muted response from the committee. Pro-development lawmakers have often questioned the basic premise of global warming, accusing environmentalists of using the idea to demonize fossil fuel consumption.

Rep. Joe Green, R-Anchorage, asked Weller about contradictory theories that global warming is simply another periodic climate shift.

Weller replied that while there are still doubters, the concept of carbon dioxide and global warming has become mainstream.

''There is no longer a controversy about the impacts of the greenhouse effect,'' Weller said.

Committee Chairman Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, asked about a period of global warming about 150,000 years ago.

''Aside from burning fossil fuels, what could have caused that?'' Scalzi asked.

Weller said that a temperature spike likely was caused by a variation in heat produced by the sun, which eventually subsided. The current warming trend is driven by carbon dioxide production, which is only expected to increase.

''Should we be buying beach-front property?'' Green asked as the presentation ended on a lighthearted note.

''I would advise against it,'' Weller replied.



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