UAF research showcased in presidential visit

Josh Hartman / Sun Star

Vladimir Romanovsky, professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was glad when President Barack Obama visited Alaska during the first week of Sept. to address the topic of climate change in the Arctic.  President Obama mentioned permafrost in his speech at the Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience (GLACIER) conference, referencing some research that was conducted by Romanovsky, among others, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The GLACIER Conference started on Aug. 31 in Anchorage at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. This is where Obama began his visit to Alaska, becoming the first president to visit

With its prominence in the Arctic, Alaska has been the location of several high profile meetings on climate change in the last year. Pictured above is UA president Pat Gamble shaking hands with U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, following a discussion on meeting the challenges of the changing Arctic. - Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

With its prominence in the Arctic, Alaska has been the location of several high profile meetings on climate change in the last year. Pictured above is UA president Pat Gamble shaking hands with U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, following a discussion on meeting the challenges of the changing Arctic. – Zayn Roohi / Photo Editor

the Arctic Circle.  It was at this conference that Obama gave a speech addressing the problems climate change poses to the Arctic and its northern communities.

For instance, the Island community of Kivalina is threatened by rising sea levels and lack of winter ice. These dangers are forcing the community to relocate, however the process is expensive and the village is not succeeding in gaining much assistance. It is also estimated that this community will be uninhabitable by the year 2025, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who built a sea wall for the island in 2008.

“Thawing permafrost destabilizes the earth on which 100,000 Alaskans live, threatening homes, damaging transportation and energy infrastructure, which could cost billions of dollars to fix,” Obama said at the GLACIER conference, summarizing the issue Kivalina and other communities face.

Romanovsky said that he is glad the president addressed issues with permafrost in the Arctic, and that Obama correctly stated that the permafrost was thawing rather than melting.

“Ice melts, but permafrost is not just ice,” Romanovsky said.  Permafrost is made up of ice and frozen soil, and although the ice melts, the soil only thaws.  “If you want to prepare a frozen chicken for dinner, and you pull it out and it melts, you have no dinner,” Romanovsky said.

Obama also addressed the effects of wildfires burning over areas of tundra, causing permafrost to melt and release carbon dioxide into the air.

Romanovsky said that while it the idea is correct that forest or tundra fires will release carbon dioxide the statement is not entirely scientifically accurate.  Because permafrost is, by definition, frozen, it cannot burn.  Romanovsky said that when the organic layer above permafrost does burn, it changes the energy exchange conditions on the surface of the permafrost, which increases the likelihood that it will thaw.

Since the forest fire does not actually burn or thaw the permafrost itself there are two large discharges of greenhouse gases: the initial combustion which occurs immediately, and the thawing of permafrost which can occur over the course of several years after a fire.

“Permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere is definitely warming, but for the most part it is not thawing just yet,” Romanovsky said.

Currently there is about 35 years of permafrost data in the Alaskan Boreal forest. While there has been much research in Alaska there is also research that is being done in other Arctic areas such as Canada and Russia.  However scientists still don’t fully understand the impact that thawing permafrost will have on the Arctic and on the world.

While additional research may not lend answers as to how to fix some of these problems, research may be able to identify problems before they happen.

“Thawing will mean big changes, and with more research at least we may know what some of those changes will be,” Romanovsky said.

 

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