Climate threat: Alaska needs to stop pushing papers around and start taking action

We have a problem. Well, actually, we have a lot of problems. We have thousands of birds starving to death and washing up on our shores. We have otters and sea stars dying by the hundreds. We have salmon runs disappearing, fish turning up where they have never been seen before, and whales that pretty much decided to skip their winter migration. It's wild days in Alaska.

We also have weather patterns that are violent and unpredictable, with 100-mph winds lashing our coastal communities and warm rain pouring over much of the state week after week. Weather like that anywhere else would send people screaming to the grocery store for supplies, but here, we just lean in a little deeper. It's Alaska, after all. We are used to fending for ourselves. But we've never encountered this before.

We've also never had to accommodate this rate of change before, at least not since epidemics swept through our rural communities, or at least since the pipeline-building days. And even then, the species we depended on continued to show up as they always had. This kind of change upends all that, and so far, scientists are left scratching their heads. There is a lot we don't know about how this amazing environment we live in works, especially when it comes to our oceans.

But few things are more important. Maybe in a state where going to the grocery store was a viable option, thousands of dead seabirds wouldn't be a big concern. But if the seabirds go, what is next? As one biologist recently said, sooner or later, whatever is impacting the seabirds will impact us as well. It would be good, therefore, to figure out what on earth is going on.

Unfortunately, we aren't used to reacting very quickly to change. We react to emergencies to some extent, especially if they involve people or valuable assets like ships or buildings. But seabirds? Well, certainly, there are those who are concerned. But much of the conversation about the unexplained seabird deaths goes something like this: We don't know what's happening, we are looking at several different possible causes, and further study is necessary. Oh, and be sure to report any sightings, with their exact locations. We want that data.

Recently, a similar but different situation occurred in Kivalina, one of the villages struggling with eroding shorelines brought on by violent fall and winter storms and less stable or even nonexistent sea ice. Kivalina, of course, was the village situated on a sand spit that Obama flew over during his trip to the Arctic. Everyone knows the community's days are numbered. With a large-scale weather pattern in place that has been sending wet, windy storms barreling up the Pacific coastline, it is not a good time to be in Kivalina.

So last week, emergency officials and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott arrived via Air and Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter, part of an Alaska National Guard training exercise and dignitary visit rolled into one, to talk with Kivalina and local officials.


Here's what their press release said: "Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management's planning team will work with the community to refresh their Small Community Emergency Response Plan, Emergency Operations Plan, Evacuation Plan, and Continuity of Operations Plan. With updated plans in place, DHS&EM and other agencies will be called upon to provide training to equip Kivalina's Incident Management Team with the skills necessary to execute the community's suite of emergency response plans."

So, there are four plans that need to be updated. Then they can talk about how to execute the plans. Then they can hold drills with the community.

Does anyone care to guess how much time it's going to take to do all that? Months? Years? Chances are pretty good that while these high-ranking officials are busy trying to make sure all the plans are in place so they can train people how to evacuate in an orderly fashion, climate change will continue to barrel along around them.

The problem in both the case of the birds and the sinking ship of Kivalina is that we are still thinking in standard time, so to speak. We need to adjust our response to warp speed. We need to stop pushing papers around and collecting endless reams of data, and go searching for answers, solutions and ways to take action that will actually save lives.

In the case of the birds, likely we can do nothing except understand. Hopefully, if we understand, we can move forward in the right direction. We can't change the currents of the ocean but we can, perhaps, predict the gravity of our inaction on issues like emissions restrictions and new uses of renewable energy. If people see the context of the problem, it may help them wake up.

For Kivalina and other places in Alaska that are being lost to the sea, the time for long-winded meetings and discussion is over. The time for action is now. One would hope these communities would be supported, but that is only possible if government and emergency response agencies stop acting as if they have time. There is no time.

Luckily, Alaskans are a scrappy bunch, and if anyone is going to adjust to dramatic changes, it is the people in rural Alaska who have seen more change in the past few generations than most populations on the face of the Earth. Unfortunately, we have become a little complacent over the last 40 years, a little too dependent on others coming in and bailing us out when we need help. If Alaskans are going to move fast enough to keep up with this new pace of change, we must stop waiting and start acting, with or without the proper data or plans or the blessing of those still moving at standard time.

Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

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