FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A group of some of the most influential Arctic scientists and federal administrators gathered in Fairbanks yesterday to talk about the need for more research into warming of the Arctic.
The scientists testified at a hearing of the Senate appropriations committee, chaired by Sen. Ted Stevens at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
The Arctic -- among the least studied regions in the world -- is the first place on the planet to feel the effects of climate change, the researchers said. Understanding what is happening there is key to understanding global climate changes.
The Arctic is experiencing warming now, as evidenced by the steadily shrinking polar ice cap and melting permafrost, the researchers said. But scant weather stations, inaccessibility and difficult conditions have put off data collection for decades.
''I believe it's crucial that we do that,'' said Dan Goldin, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. ''We at the federal agencies need to look at changing our priorities and put more of an emphasis here.''
Panelists included the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey and experts from the University of Alaska's Geophysical Institute and International Arctic Research Center.
Villagers along the Arctic Ocean already see evidence of climate changes every day, said Caleb Pungowiyi, president of a nonprofit foundation established by NANA Regional Corp.
''These are changes that have gone unnoticed by the policymakers and scientists,'' Pungowiyi said.
The sky isn't as blue as it used to be, obscured frequently by a strange white haze, he said. The shrinking ice cap is forcing marine mammals and other sea life away from shore, so hunters must travel farther.
Because the protective pack ice forms later and softer, storms that batter the coast eat great chunks of land away around Barrow and the villages of Kivalina, Point Hope and Shishmaref.
Stevens carefully stepped around any reference to global warming on Tuesday.
''I don't endorse or denounce the concept,'' he said. ''I'm still in the process of finding out what's going on.''
Tuesday's hearing was the last Stevens will conduct as head of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He will step down next month, as control of the Senate shifts to the Democratic Party.
Nonetheless, he pledged to keep the issue of Arctic climate change a priority for funding.
Several researchers said current climate changes likely stem from a combination of factors including natural variation and human activity.
''We don't know whether this change is part of a cycle or is following a long-term, possibly irreversible trend,'' said Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation.
Scientists agree that the world's temperature rose by 1 degree Fahrenheit in the last century, an increase unprecedented during the last 1,000 years. The Arctic warmed as much as 7 or 8 degrees in that time, Goldin said.
The pack ice that normally insulates coastal villages from winter storms shrinks 3 percent a year, as it has since the 1970s, scientists said. Arctic sea ice is 40 percent thinner than it was 30 years ago, while snow melts in Barrow 40 days earlier in the same time period.
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