Earth & Conservation

An Alaska View of an Ever-Warming World

Increasing wildfires, melting permafrost and warmer winters are all signs in the north of a warming world.

Among numerous other promises, President-elect Donald Trump vowed on a number of occasions during the presidential campaign that he would, once in office, remove the United States from the Paris climate agreement.

That may prove trickier than he has posited, but any efforts to undermine the pact - or indeed, any of the other steps his campaign touted, such as withdrawing from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) - could have devastating repercussions, especially if accompanied by an elimination of President Obama's Clean Power Plan, not only in terms of what it would mean for American greenhouse gas emissions but also the willingness of other nations to meet their own commitments to reduce global warming.

All of which means that the timing of a new study could not be more ironic, or disturbing. Research, published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, finds that existing predictions of global temperature increases under the "business-as-usual" scenario of greenhouse gas emissions may be underestimated. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated an average global temperature increase of between approximately 4.7 and 8.7 degrees F (2.6-4.8 C) by 2100. The new study, led by Tobias Friedrich of the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, argues that those bracketed figures should be more like 8.7-13.4 F (4.78-7.36 C).

Key to that conclusion is the issue of climate sensitivity, which essentially addresses the fact that the relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and temperature increases is non-linear: that is to say, one can't simply say with full confidence that emitting X tons of CO2 will result in Y degrees of temperature increase, because there are other factors and feedbacks. Some of those other factors include regional and seasonal gains and losses in vegetation, cloud cover and sea ice, a warmer atmosphere holding increased amounts of water vapor, and so on.

Key to the conclusion reached by Friedrich and colleagues is their assertion, arrived at from poring over global temperature data stretching back 780,000 years, that climate sensitivity is higher at higher temperatures. In other words, as the temperature increases, so too does the climate's response to the greenhouse gases that have caused those temperature increases.

It suggests a scenario in which global warming could effectively keep feeding on itself.

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"The only way out is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible," Friedrich said.

Yet, as the professed policy of the incoming administration underlines, there remain those who refuse to acknowledge the realities of a changing climate, who consider it at worst a hoax and at best a theoretical construct. But there is one part of the United States that, above all others, is already seeing the runaway impacts of a changing climate, and that's my home state, Alaska.

"All the seasons in Alaska are warming but in the winter over the last couple of decades, we've seen temperatures of 8 to 10 degrees F above normal in the winter months, and about 1 to 3 degrees above normal in the summer months, depending on where you are in the state," Scott Rupp, deputy director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Fairbanks, told Seeker. "And those extremes have some fundamental impacts on the environment here, and the plants and animals and people that are living here."

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Some of those impacts are already being felt. For example, the melting of permafrost - the layer of permanently-frozen soil beneath the surface that is a characteristic of Arctic environments - is causing erosion, affecting construction, damaging vital roadways and prompting the abandonment of at least one village.

"Here in Fairbanks, we've been experiencing an increase in rain-on-snow events in the wintertime," Rupp added. "And freezing rain here is not like it is is where I grew up outside of Philadelphia, where it's slippery for a day or two and then everything melts and goes away. If you get iced-up roads and then the temperatures drop, you're dealing with severe safety issues for weeks and possibly even months."

That particularly affects rural communities, which become even more isolated, and members of which find it increasingly dangerous to travel along traditional routes.

But if the fate of Alaska Native communities may be too difficult or remote for legislators and future cabinet members to grasp or care about, one major issue in Alaska that could prove a harbinger for large parts of the rest of the country is wildfires. Wildfires are increasing in the state, not just because drier forests burn more easily, but because atmospheric changes have led to increased lightning strikes that provide the sparks.

The year 2015, says Rupp, "was the second largest fire season on record," with 5.2 million acres burning in the summer. "That was an unprecedented season, where we had in a 10-day period of time, over 85,000 lightning strikes and 300 lightning-caused fires within that time period. We've been seeing some fundamental shifts in fire activity over the past two decades relative to what was going on in the '50s, '60s, '70s and even '80s."

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Rupp moved to Fairbanks 23 years ago; those two decades and change have been enough for him to witness "dramatic changes" in the environment.

"Like a lot of Alaskans, I'm here for many reasons. I enjoy the science, and I'm passionate about that, but I also enjoy the wilds of Alaska and enjoy getting out on that landscape. And how I do that and how I interact with that environment is substantially different now than it was in the early '90s. And it's pretty sobering to think that in that time, that I could experience that sort of change. I think that's a key point that here, it's not hypothetical impacts of people. They're real impacts, they're on a small percentage of people who have a small voice on the world, but it's a real and present danger and issue for people here."

The changes that are already occurring in Alaska are as a result of average annual temperature increases in the 49th state of around 3 degrees over the last six decades. Roughly speaking, temperatures in the northern high latitudes are increasing twice as much as those in lower latitudes; and so, Rupp says, the kind of changes that might be expected to occur under a scenario where average global temperatures increase by as much 13 degrees are hard to conceptualize.

"Here at the university, we have been trying to analyze the global climate models and understand what they're telling us about what climate's going to look like in Alaska through the end of the century, and some of the models that we've been looking at, the models that present the warmest increases in temperature in Alaska are significantly higher than what we've seen but do not hit that level of increase.

"It's pretty crazy."

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