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Ominous undertones to Alaska's summer of sunshine?

Carey RestinoThe Arctic Sounder
Anchorage recently broke the all-time record for the number of consecutive days of 70 degrees or warmer. But as Alaskans across the state bask in the sunshine, we also have enough common sense to recognize by-and-large that changing conditions will be a mixed blessing. Loren Holmes photo

This summer marks the beginning of my third decade of living in Alaska and I have the feeling like the state gave me an incredible gift -- a summer of sunshine. In my greenhouse, red tomatoes drip from the vine, ripened with so many golden days they string together in a sea of gloriousness. My children and I are all so brown, we hardly recognize ourselves. I used the air conditioner in my car several times this summer. My two pairs of shorts -- the ones I typically can count on one hand the number of days when its warm enough to wear them -- are constantly coated in garden dirt this year.

Even the viciousness of the flies cannot stop me from being totally in love with this summer, with Alaska, all over again. That awe I felt the first year I arrived here is back in full force.

Except…In the back of my head and the heads of a few of my friends is this lurking thought -- should we be enjoying this, really?

The BBC News wrote a story this week about Kivalina, the Arctic community on a sandspit soon to be eaten up by rising waters, eroded by storms unencumbered by traditionally present sea ice, and swamped by melting permafrost. Its residents, the story said, will likely be the first climate change refugees. They wrote about Barrow, where unusual ice conditions kept both whalers and polar bears from hunting the ocean waters this spring.

Temperature records show the Arctic region of Alaska is warming twice as fast as the rest of the United States, the story said, while pointing out that despite it being the frontline for climate change, the state is oddly dependent on some of the very sources of its pain -- the oil and gas industry.But with so many stories written by outside news sources, this story makes one point that I disagree wholeheartedly with.

“When President Obama pledged to redouble his efforts to reduce America’s carbon emissions last month, his words met with little more than a shrug in Alaska,” the story’s author wrote.The story went on to characterize Alaskans in general as being financially dependent on oil money to the point of being nonchalant about the rapid climate change a carbon-fuelled economy causes.I can count half-a-dozen friends who drive hybrid cars -- not a frugal decision, nor a particularly convenient one in a land where four-wheel-drive vehicles offer a tad more dependability than their two-wheel friends, no matter how many bells and whistles they have. They drive them because they care about the environment, not their pocket book.

Other people I know have installed solar panels (and what a year to do that!), wind turbines, and just about everyone recycles. Many are far more passionately committed to environmental awareness than I am, spending hours educating themselves on issues and decisions within our state and beyond. And all of us are looking at this summer and shaking our heads. What’s next, we wonder? Another 7-foot snowfall as the environmental balance swings again? 

Anchorage recently broke the all-time record for the number of consecutive days of 70 degrees or warmer. But as Alaskans across the state bask in the sunshine, we also have enough common sense to recognize by-and-large that changing conditions will be a mixed blessing.

Alaskans as a population depend more on the land and are therefore more connected to it than any other people I have ever encountered. Fishing is as much a cultural staple as it is a dining table resource. Purple berry-stained fingers are a fashion statement. And don’t even get me started on the moose and caribou-antler decoration motif. Alaskans grow things, eat from the land, and spend large amounts of time in natural places where they can feel first-hand the changes in the environment.

If anyone is paying attention to how and why it’s happening, it’s us, because Alaskans have the most to lose.I suppose from an outsider’s perspective if you look at our state where communities are drowning while profiting from oil revenues, the irony may seem glaring. But I would argue that Alaskans are more personally connected to the environment and its changes and the ways that puts things out of balance than the thousands of religiously recycling suburbia-dwellers. While state policy may not make that obvious, spending time fishing, hunting and foraging with Alaskans will. The sunshine is glorious, but I’m not the only one who wonders if its hidden message is ominous.

This article originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.