Scientists say Kenai Peninsula getting drier and warmer

CHANGE: Indications show in glaciers and natural ground cover.

Peninsula ClarionNovember 27, 2011 

Hikers get a close look at Exit Glacier near Seward. The glacier's source, Harding Ice Field, has lost surface area and depth, which is one example of how global warming is changing Alaska, according to researchers from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

M. SCOTT MOON / PENINSULA CLARION VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVE 2011

KENAI -- Climate change is taking place on the Kenai Peninsula, slowly but surely.

Over the last 100 years, climate change has been affecting the Peninsula, according to a presentation Thursday night from Dr. John Morton, supervisory biologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Morton said climate change has its own impacts, and can't be looked at in a vacuum.

"It's the addition of climate change on top of all the other stressors that we have on the system," Morton said. "Urbanization, pollution and land use changes -- all those things."

Morton said when all those impacts are put together, the result is "uncomfortable."

Kenai Resilience, a group whose mission is "gathering and celebrating local skills, knowledge and resources toward cultivating a more sustainable community," organized the speech, which was hosted at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.

Climate change on the Peninsula, Morton said, has meant drier lands, warming temperatures, melting glaciers and the changing land cover.

Morton presented data compiled from a variety of sources and studies, most of which was collected by now-retired refuge ecologist Ed Berg.

Berg's data showed the area has been warmer and drier in the last four decades.

"We've lost over two inches a year for the last 40 years," Morton said. "The summertime temperature has been an average of 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer."

Summer is the not the only season of change.

"In the winter, it's been phenomenal, it's almost 7 degrees," Morton said. "Kenai in January is about 7 degrees warmer,"

One of the effects of a warmer winter, Morton said, is that there will be more avalanches.

"We had three avalanches in 2002 or 2003 in which we lost 200 animals," Morton said. "In one avalanche alone we lost 130.

"These are logical things happening out of the change in climate."

Morton said the loss of wetlands is also an effect of the changes.

"Our wetlands have dried considerably since 1950," he said. "... We're averaging about a 6 to 11 percent decline in the area wetlands since 1950."

In the same time period, the glaciers, specifically Harding Ice Field, have lost 5 percent surface area, and have dropped about 21 meters in elevation, Morton said.

The rise in temperature has caused an influx of spruce bark beetle outbreaks, which are triggered by two consecutive above-average summer temperatures.

Morton said the problem with that, is that each year is technically above average.

"Because we're drying and we're being warmer, the available water is at a 60-percent loss since 1968," Morton said.

Morton presented forecast data for 100 years in the future. The forecast was done by taking the vegetation maps for the Peninsula and then overlaying the climate change information.

"Once you know that relationship, which you can project the climate forward, you can assume the vegetation will follow and see the vegetation of the future," Morton said.

Morton said the numbers themselves were not important, but it was the message it was sending.

"Roughly a third of the Peninsula is expected to change land cover," Morton said. "That's a lot. What it tells you is the direction that we're heading."

Despite these changes, Morton said there are three choices in what "we" can do.

The first choice is called retrospective adaptation, meaning managing toward historical conditions.

"You always assume that before man got here, it was a really nice place," he said. "The problem is there's no historical baseline to measure to."

Morton said the second choice is prospective adaptation, which is managing toward future conditions.

"I think really to be smart, we need to do both," Morton said. "I think we do retrospective stuff in the short run, and in the long run we should look at the prospective approach."

The third option, Morton said, is doing nothing.

"To me, doing nothing means you're doing active listening," he said. "Active listening to biologists, or being well-informed.

"Even if you're doing nothing, you're still paying attention."

"Hands down, without any question, the single biggest land protection we can do on the Kenai is protect the riparian habitat corridor," he said. That's the interface between land and a river or stream.

Despite the challenges ahead, Morton said, there are tools for adapting to them.

"The point is, we have a lot of tools," Morton said. "It's just a matter of deciding how we're going to use the tools in responding to climate change."

"I think that's just really critical that people pay attention to what's happening," Morton said. "Because it's happening so fast that the scientists are having trouble keeping up with it."

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