appeared on the screen, it was difficult to peel your eyes away from the incredible panoramic
view outside the windows of the auditorium. An entire wall of the room was fixed with floor-to-
ceiling windows that gazed upon the widespread city of Anchorage, Alaska. With magnificent
mountains jutting from the earth as a backdrop, and with the ocean at our feet, it is rare to experience a view of Anchorage that doesn’t mesmerize. It was a unique day in Anchorage, however. A record breaking day in fact. It was May 13 th, 2016, and it was 77 degrees outside; 23 degrees above the average high temperature for that time of year. It was an irony not lost on many that we were here for the Alaska Bar Association’s Annual Conference titled, Climate Change in the Western U.S. & Alaska.
Alaska ahead of the curve, so to speak, on climate change, with retreating glaciers, melting permafrost, coastal erosion, and loss of critical habitat for both humans and wildlife. Dr. Robert R. Gillies was the guest speaker for the day’s discussion on climate change. He is a climatologist, originally from Scotland, and the director of the the Utah Climate Center. Dr. Gillies presented his knowledge and research on climate change in both national and international realms, focusing on the science behind temperature inversion prediction, climate precipitation cycles (with an emphasis on the Intermountain West), and global climate change.
To a room full of Alaskan lawyers, eager to depart the convention center to take advantage of the peculiar weather outside, the scientist opened his speech by saying, “climate change should not be a political topic. It is happening now, and it will continue to happen.”
As Dr. Gillies moved to the first slide in his presentation, the room was filled with the sound of orchestra instruments. Music from a cello, violin, viola, and bass harmonized in rhythm as the graphic of four waves, made to represent each individual instrument, moved to match the tempo of the music. “Climate change is just like music,” Dr. Gillies explained, “with its own harmonics and oscillations in a system, not unlike the harmonics of an orchestra.” He used music to illustrate that the harmonics of climate change are fueled by the specific interactions of numerous climate oscillations throughout the globe. It is these interactions that drive temperature trends and precipitation rates, both of which craft the most obvious ramifications of climate change such as droughts, storms, and heat waves. Dr. Gillies then explained that it is the gradients between these oscillations throughout the globe that are contributing to the extremely high rate of change visible in the northern hemisphere, specifically when it comes to temperature.
2016 marks a year of bewilderment for climatologists throughout the world. The temperature trend has shown an upward ascent for quite some time, however, the intensity of this year’s temperature escalation puts all other years to shame. Although scientists are still uncertain of the source behind the rapid flux, they do know one thing for certain; this jump has brought the planet closer to the point of no return and a “catastrophic” level of climate change.
According to Dr. Gillies, a “catastrophic” change in temperature is defined as a temperature change so great that life can no longer adapt, and climate disruption is certain. A catastrophic change is met when the global temperature experiences an increase of at least 4 degrees Celsius. Just below the catastrophic level is a “dangerous” change, in which climate disruption is probable, and the global temperature has increased by at least 2-degrees Celsius.
With the addition of 2016’s rapid increase in global temperature, our planet is currently sitting at a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in temperature. Climatologists predict that if the planet continues on this trajectory, we will hit a 2-degree Celsius increase by the year 2035. The increase in global temperature creates incredibly diverse consequences when it comes to water levels throughout the planet. In northern climates, for example, the increase in temperature will cascade into a greater volume of precipitation per year. As a result, the warming temperatures will cause the precipitation to progressively present itself in the form of rain, rather than snow -- a consideration for everyone from water resource managers and municipalities to urban planners and ski area operators.
In regions like Alaska, where snowfall is extremely important for water resources, and subsistence in more rural areas, the lack of water runoff from the winter snow will ultimately reduce the sum of freshwater resources, despite the deceiving increase in precipitation. In contrast to the North, a drastic drying regime will initiate towards the equatorial regions of the planet.
These predictions, should they materialize, would gravely impact all forms of life on the planet, and soon. Just this past March, the U.N. projected that the world could suffer a 40% shortfall in water by the year 2030 unless countries dramatically change their current use of the resource.
Dr. Gillies concluded his lecture by emphasizing that he is neither an activist nor lawmaker; he is a reporter of the science. He is merely stating the facts. But when an audience member unveiled the elephant in the room, and asked “so, what do we do?” Gillies responded by saying, “in reality, the best way to alter the planet’s current trajectory is to reduce the amount of carbon that we are currently burning. The question is whether getting away from burning carbon is economically or politically feasible for the whole of the human race.”
Like most tough decisions, climate change, degrees of vulnerability, and how to react are, indeed, political after all.
AMRDI Alaska Intern