June 28, 2002 The Voice of the Times scoffs at NY Times report on Alaska warming

Posted: Tuesday, July 02, 2002

As Mark Twain might have put it, reports that Alaska is melting and falling apart are greatly exaggerated.

The world is almost certainly going through a warming trend, one whose impacts are being felt first in the Arctic. But those impacts are nowhere near as alarming as portrayed recently by major newspapers such as The New York Times and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.

In fact, one of the negative affects of the warming trend is an alarming increase in tabloid journalism on the part of otherwise professional and respected newspapers, especially when it comes to Alaska.

The headline on a June 16 article in The New York Times said, ''Alaska, No Longer So Frigid, Starts to Crack, Burn and Sag.'' The article said average temperatures in Alaska ''have risen about seven degrees over the last 30 years.'' The writer cites unnamed federal officials as his source for the information.

The article mentions some of the real problems caused by warming, including the increasing danger to Eskimo hunters venturing onto the Arctic ice pack, and the need for several coastal villages to relocate. It does not mention that villages have often relocated throughout history when rivers changed their courses and sea storms ate away at the coastline.

It discusses wildfires, buildings sinking into permafrost, buckled roads and utility poles leaning at crazy angles, all of which have been problems here for many decades. Those things relate far less to global warming than to natural phenomena that go back many years before the warming trend.

Alaska pioneers learned the hard way that when permafrost is disturbed by construction, bad things happen. Buildings sitting on frozen ground tend to sink as the warmth of the structure thaws the earth below. And utility poles are often spit out by permafrost in a natural function called ''pole jacking.''

The New York Times claim that Alaska's temperature increased seven degrees in the last 30 years was so far off base that The Alaska Climate Research Center posted a response on its Web site. ''This statement is incorrect,'' the research center reported. ''The correct warming for Alaska is about 1/3 of the quoted amount . . .''

Both newspapers reported that thawing permafrost is a potential threat to the trans-Alaska pipeline, which is untrue. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. is watching 200 of its 78,000 vertical support members (similar to pilings) for possible adjustment or replacement due to changing soil conditions.

The New York Times also said warming has brought mosquitoes to Barrow, where they ''once were nonexistent.'' Barrow, of course, is on the North Slope, one of the lushest mosquito habitats in Alaska.

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