The following video was produced and narrated by Dave Beebe, GSACC vice president and commercial fisherman. The video accompanies Dave’s essay, “A Beautiful shrimp”, which was chosen for the book, Thoreau’s Legacy: American Stories about Global Warming. The book project is an anthology from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Penguin Classics which “brings together established writers and fresh voices to inspire us with personal stories and reflections on global warming.”
A discussion by Paul Olson, GSACC President and commercial salmon troller
I am going to begin with a little bit of Al Gore 101 and explain what this means for southeast Alaska because amidst all the warm and fuzzy talk about sustainable resource economies we are in the midst of a rapidly growing global ecological crisis that cannot be offset by the types of “restoration” that entail cutting trees in order to burn them, or using clearcuts as a funding mechanism (“stewardship contracting” – a classic PONZI scheme perpetrated by the Forest Service and its private, unauthorized advisory committee, the Tongass Futures Roundtable).
Second, I will discuss the current status of Alaska’s salmon fisheries. I have fished from Puget Sound to the beaches in front of the Fairweather Range over the past thirty plus years and have caught, ate, and fought to protect numerous salmon stocks that are now no longer annually fished or listed under the Endangered Species Act for various reasons. Southeast Alaska is truly the southernmost range of active salmon fishery that supports commercial, guided, sport and subsistence fisheries on an annual basis. Because of resource fluctuations associated with climate change and marine survival, protection of freshwater habitat is going to be critical to the most important natural resource in our region. Under various zoning schemes proposed by Tongass Futures Roundtable members, the northern boundary seems likely to move a bit north of Dixon Entrance as Prince of Wales Island and the surrounding environs seem to be a sacrifice zone to the timber industry based on the flawed, and in fact , horribly wrong assumption that intact watersheds in the northern half of Southeast Alaska can support salmon fisheries while a taxpayer subsidized timber industry converts already fragile watersheds past the known habitat thresholds where they will no longer support consistently harvestable numbers of salmon year after year.
For several months in summer of 2009, Southeast Alaska experienced substantial exposure to a phenomenon that is otherwise common throughout our planet: sunlight. Apparently, most of the time, the rest of our planet receives heat from this sunlight thing as it passes largely unfiltered through the atmosphere and warms the earth’s surface. As the earth’s surface warms, it emits heat energy back into the atmosphere. Atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide and methane absorb some of this heat energy and another portion reradiates back into space. But as carbon dioxide and methane gas concentrations increase in the atmosphere, more heat is absorbed, causing increased warming of the earth-atmosphere system.
Today, atmospheric concentrations of these gases are at their highest level over the past 650,000 years and are at a level that has likely not been exceeded for over 20 million years. These changes became newsworthy in 1991 when the world’s expert panel on climate change, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), announced that there is “[a] clear scientific consensus … that the world’s climate is changing.”
In 2007 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) released its 4th Assessment Report and attributed the observed increases in global average temperatures over the last fifty years to the human-induced atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases. The 2007 report included the projection that the greenhouse gas buildup will raise the overall average global temperature between 3.2 and 9 º F over the next century. Because of these changes, the IPCC cautioned that “[t]he resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change associated disturbances (e.g. flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, ocean acidification) and other global change drivers (e.g. land-use change, pollution, fragmentation of natural systems, overexploitation of resources).
The immediate implications of these changes are much more significant for high-latitude regions. Thus far, observed changes in Alaska’s climate have been consistent with climate model results projecting that “high-latitude land areas of the Northern Hemisphere would experience the most rapid and largest warming on Earth.” During the 21st century, Alaska (and the Arctic as a whole) will warm at least twice as much as the rest of the world.
Annual average global temperatures have increased 1º F degree over the past fifty years while annual average temperatures have increased 4º F in Alaska and 7º in the Interior. Two of the most accepted model results project additional warming ranges from either 2 to 5ºF or 1.5 – 3.6ºF between the present and 2030.
One of the most pronounced shifts over the past two years has been the loss of Arctic sea ice. Several years ago, the IPCC anticipated a possible total loss of Arctic late-summer sea ice by the latter part of this century. But in 2006, scientists made long term projections for sea ice melts and warned that Arctic sea ice was no longer recovering fully from summer melts and presented the hypothesis that there could be ice-free summers by 2040 or earlier.
These projections may be optimistic in light of recent events and updated model results. A 2007 U.S. Geological Survey study concluded that “parts of the Arctic are losing summer ice so fast that no bears will be able to live there within several decades.” Ice withdrawals that year set record levels and shocked climate scientists worldwide. Researchers ran new models which revealed that previous models may have “seriously underestimated” the degree of melting. One new model projects a complete loss of summer sea ice in the arctic by 2013 and the scientists who produced the previous projections agree that the earlier models were not as accurate and that the melt will occur much earlier than previously anticipated.
Southeast Alaska has also experienced climatic changes over the past half-century. There have been two significant publications that have reviewed climate change science and impacts pertaining specifically to this region and to Alaska’s coastal forests. First, in 1998 the Center for Global Change and Arctic System Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) published the proceedings of a 1997 workshop held to analyze the implications of these changes on various regions in Alaska, including coastal forests. A decade later, the University of Alaska Southeast convened a panel of federal, state, university and independent scientists to analyze the present and projected climate change impacts on Juneau.
The known impacts are already significant. Temperatures in Juneau increased roughly 3º F in between 1940 and 2005 and annual precipitation increased by 2.6 inches over the same period. These statistics are consistent with the projected effect that climate change will have in Southeast Alaska: a shift to a warmer, wetter climate regime. Updated climate models predict more of the same – a continued rapid and long term rise in global temperatures with corresponding precipitation increases. The Juneau panelists projected that average air temperatures there may increase by approximately 10º F by the end of this century.
These temperature increases have already, and are likely to continue, to cause more severe windstorms and precipitation events along the Alaska coast. These changes had already been observed by the time of the 1997 UAF workshop. At that workshop scientists reported that:
In the mid 1970s temperatures in Alaska coastal stations increased abruptly to the highest level of the 20th century; even the low period in the temperature cycle that followed was markedly warmer than any similar period in the instrument-based record. Storm frequency and intensity increased at the same time as the recent rise in temperature. The number of days with gale-force winds at coastal locations more than doubled in the late 1970s compared to the previous two decades.
The past two winters have also been consistent with climate change model projections indicating that for the winter months there would be a greatly elevated area of precipitation adjacent to Southeast Alaska in the Gulf of Alaska. The reason for the anticipated increase precipitation is because the atmosphere will have to absorb more moisture from the warming ocean through evaporation – moisture that turns into precipitation as the air is forced over our coastal mountains. Snowfall at lower elevations will generally decrease due to the warming trend. Juneau has documented a decrease in snowfall at sea level over the past sixty years. But conversely, increased precipitation at higher elevations can mean increased snowfall. The winter of 2006/2007 ultimately produced the largest snowpack on record. The following winter of 2007/2008 produced the second largest snowpack on record – 169% of the average based on data dating back to 1979.
Rising temperatures, record snowpacks and increasingly severe windstorms will have significant impacts on our forest resources – water, wildlife, fish and trees. Alaska forestry scientists participating in the 1997 UAF workshop summarized the challenge posed by climate change for coastal forests: “[r]ecently a substantial amount of evidence has begun to accumulate that climate change in Alaska’s forest regions has surpassed the range of background variability and is changing systematically in ways that are posing significant challenges to several Alaska forest resources.” One significant risk identified by the forest scientists at the UAF workshop was the potential that “the dramatic increase in gale wind in coastal Alaska” may increase the risk of forest blowdown.
Also, these severe weather events increase risks to forest health from other sources – the forest scientists explained that the combination of increased blowdown from windstorms and canopy breakage caused by the heavy snow that is typical of warmer winters increases vulnerability to other disturbances and concluded that “[p]rojected further warming is likely to increase the risk of insect attack.” The 1997 panel reports indicated “high confidence” that climate change would cause “[m]ore frequent, widespread and damaging western black-headed budworm outbreaks causing damage to western hemlock” in coastal forests and high confidence that a “period of widespread insect-caused mortality and severe/extensive forest fires across interior and southcentral Alaska would occur.”
Events occurring since that time have verified these concerns. The Forest Service has documented spruce needle aphid outbreaks on the Tongass beginning in 1998 that defoliated 30,000 acres in 2003 and 9,120 acres in 2006. Together, black-headed budworms and spruce needle aphids have defoliated or affected over 300,000 acres on the Tongass since 1991.
Defoliating insect outbreaks have had more substantial and unprecedented impacts on Kenai Peninsula forests and in nearby British Columbia. A scientific panel participating in the U.S. Global Change Research Program tallied up the damage done by the end of the 20th century from the spruce bark beetle infestation on the Kenai Peninsula and reported that “[a] sustained infestation of spruce bark beetles, which in the past have been limited by cold, has caused widespread tree deaths over 2.3 million acres on the Kenai Peninsula since 1992, the largest lost to insects ever recorded in North America.” The panel unequivocally attributed the infestation to warming temperatures. The Forest Service observed the presence of this spruce beetle on the Tongass in 2006 – an insect it characterizes as “the most destructive forest insect Alaska-wide” that can cause mortality in Sitka spruce stands that can be as high as 75%. The recent pine beetle infestation in British Columbia affected an area nearly the size of England (9.2 million hectares) in 2006 alone and is expected to wipe out 80% of the pine forest by 2013.
There have been fire increases as well. Dramatic fire seasons occurred in 2004 and 2005. In 2004, fires burned over 6.6 million acres in Alaska and in 2005, fires burned another 4.6 million acres, prompting State Forester Chris Maisch to comment that the 2005 season “went against conventional firefighting wisdom that says overwhelming fire seasons don’t happen in consecutive years.” These risks are more immediate in interior boreal forests but fire damage has the potential to be even more severe in coastal forests because hemlock and spruce dominated forests not adapted to fire, and warmer weather, with lightning as source of ignition, may result in fire becoming a major disturbance force disrupting rainforest environment.
Temperature increases and precipitation patterns also threaten to alter watersheds and hydrological systems. The 1997 UAF panel of scientists expressed “high confidence that the following effects on hydrological systems are occurring: increased runoff and earlier spring peak discharge in many glacier- and snow-fed rivers, and warming of lakes and rivers in many regions, with effects on thermal structure and water quality.” Two studies released in 2005 verified these occurrences. Scientists from the Geophysical Institute and the USGS reported that “glacier thinning in southeast Alaska is about double that previously reported.” A second study showed that in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, wetlands have decreased by 88%, open area by 35% and water and lakes by 14%.
By the time it released the 2008 Forest Plan amendment, the Forest Service had identified yellow-cedar mortality as “one of the most widespread and important forest problems in Southeast Alaska” with aerial surveys mapping 500,000 acres of decline across the Tongass. Other changes in vegetation include projections that by the end of the 21st century, shrubs and trees will have colonized elevations currently characterized as alpine or tundra habitat in SE Alaska (CBJ report).
WILDLIFE AND FISH
Climate change may dramatically alter wildlife populations on the Tongass. The IPCC projects high extinction risks for 20 – 30% of all plants and animals if global air temperatures continue to increase rapidly. The Juneau panelists identified several risks specific to the Tongass. One particular concern is amphibian populations – Alaskan toads and frogs belong to taxonomic families that are declining more rapidly worldwide than other amphibians. Although the causes of the decline vary, the Juneau panel concluded that “[d]isease or climate change may be important factors affecting the future trends for these species in Southeast Alaska” and noted studies projecting that hundreds of amphibian species may become extinct over the next few decades. The presence of a chytrid fungus was identified in Southeast Alaska’s western toads and data indicates that a significant decline for this species is now well underway. By 2005, climate change was identified as “a strong suspect” for the decline of the Kittlitz’s murrelet in Southeast Alaska and other portions of its range because of the bird’s dependency on a rapidly retreating glaciers.
Climate change may also have significant impacts on the unique terrestrial mammal populations that inhabit Southeast Alaska’s island archipelago. Southeast Alaska has had a dynamic geologic history, and many of the terrestrial species have been isolated on its islands, resulting in a large number of endemic species. It has been recognized ever since Darwin published his theories that naturally fragmented habitat on oceanic islands limits the size of those populations below those of mainland populations. Climate change alone may cause significant habitat modification, and the Juneau panel of scientists noted that continued man-made habitat loss through activities such as logging may increase these risks, especially for small terrestrial mammals such as voles and flying squirrels: “[c]ontinued warming may also interact with land use practices that reduce forest canopy cover to decrease the amount of suitable habitat for forest specialists.” The panel also predicted that rapid climate change will likely have significant negative effects to endemic species living in southeastern Alaska in part due to their isolation on islands.
There is probably no species more important to Tongass residents than deer. Greenpeace has submitted numerous comments to the Forest Service emphasizing that the climate change models project the possible occurrence of heavy and possibly even catastrophic snowfall events that are more severe than in historic records. The point is to encourage the agency to use an abundance of caution when planning logging projects near prime winter deer habitat. These concerns are not unfounded – deer populations plummeted in portions of Wildlife Analysis Area 4 the previous winter because of the 2006/2007 winter severe snow event, causing the closure of the doe harvest by emergency order. The Department of Fish and Game directed the closure after finding various locations in Northern Southeast Alaska where there was substantial winter-related deer mortality.
FISH AND WATERSHEDS
Both the 1997 UAF workshop panels and the subsequent Juneau panelists identified a number of concerns about increased mortality risks for salmon associated with increased temperatures and precipitation on Southeast Alaska’s most abundant and cherished resource: salmon. The concerns ranged from high temperatures to low flow events to early entry into the marine environment when food resources are low or absent decreasing growth and survival. Recent research done by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Washington echoes these concerns about climate change impacts on fish: “higher water temperatures, lower spawning flows and most importantly, increased winter water flows are all likely to raise salmon mortality.”
There has been ample documentation of stream temperature concerns in Alaska. In 2001, the Forest Service reported fish kills in several heavily logged Prince of Wales Island watersheds that “corresponded with low streamflow and high air temperature events.” That summer, the agency reported 318 days of stream temperature exceedances at 18 sites on Prince of Wales Island in between June and September. Seven of the sites had temperatures over 20 degrees C that significantly exceeded the recommended 15 degree threshold. Stream flows declined to roughly 17% of the average flow for a ten day period in August and the low flows corresponded with high stream temperatures. Alaska Department of Fish and reported widespread fish kills throughout Staney Creek and Thorne River and estimated that there were up to 50,000 dead fish in each watershed.
Two years later, in 2003, Greenpeace documented another extensive kill of unspawned salmon in the same Staney Creek watershed. The following year, 2004, there was yet another 20,000 fish kill in Staney Creek. As record temperatures and record low levels of precipitation occurred throughout the Tongass that year, the temperatures of some small streams rose to 82º F. In many cases salmon delayed their migration and some cases even bypassed their natal streams for mainland streams cooled by glacial runoff. Two years later, the pink salmon run failed to show up and returns were nearly 80% less than predicted. The management director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s commercial fisheries division attributed the poor run in large part to the warm temperatures that occurred during the parent year.
Reporting of stream temperature monitoring data has been done elsewhere in Alaska and also indicates significant risks. A stream monitoring study conducted on the Kenai Peninsula in 2005 by Cook Inletkeeper demonstrated that there were more days than ever before – 80 – that exceeded temperature limits considered healthy for salmon. Scientific data taken from the Yukon River indicates that salmon are already suffering from the effects on rising stream temperatures in Alaska: “[e]xamination of historic temperature data suggests that rising average water temperatures during the past three decades appear to be associated with the increase in disease and potential pre-spawning mortality among Yukon River Chinook salmon.”
There is considerable debate about how to best achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions and slow down the rate of global warming. But there is little question that the reductions need to occur as rapidly as possible in order to protect our salmon, our deer and our communities. There will be other costly impacts on Alaska as well. According to the Institute for Social and Economic Research and the University of Alaska Anchorage, infrastructure repair and replacement costs associated with higher temperatures, melting permafrost, reduced sea ice and increased flooding are expected to increase 20% between now and 2030 – an additional $6.1 billion.
Climate change is happening, but salmon are an opportunistic predator and colonizer. They just may hang on. But they won’t if legislative rezoning of southeast Alaska’s freshwater habitat in the southern Tongass become sacrifice zones for “conservation” offsets in the northern Tongass. Such sacrifice zones are sure to be inhospitable to fish, regardless of how many millions we spend on “restoring” habitat by logging recovering forests on the taxpayer’s dime.