With raging wildfires, melting glaciers and big shifts of animal behavior, Alaska's environment is changing faster than anywhere else on Earth. That's why scientists say it's an ideal laboratory -- or perhaps a harbinger -- of how climate change could affect the rest of the lower 48 states.
President Obama flew to Alaska Monday to focus on climate change issues and to rename the tallest peak in Alaska from McKinley to Denali, the local name. At the same time, NASA officials announced a new program of air flights, satellite passes and on-the-ground field work in Alaska to figure out what's happening, how fast and why.
"The region is rapidly changing, and we've already seen a lot of that from field measurements and remote sensing," said Scott Goetz, deputy director at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass., and science team leader of NASA's Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment (ABoVE), in a statement. "It's an area that's warming with climate change, and there's a lot of potential for permafrost degradation, especially with these massive fires burning off the organic soil layer."
More than 5 million acres in Alaska have burned so far this year, making 2015 the second most devastating fire year on record for Alaska, with the most intensive three-week period of burning on record, according to NASA.
On the Alaskan tundra, scientists are witnessing big changes. The warmer atmosphere means more thunderstorms, more lightning strikes and more fires in places that haven't experienced them before, says Christopher Neill, director of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.
A lightning fire burned 400 square miles of the tundra in 2007, a patch the size of Cape Cod. That fire not only released large amounts of carbon that are locked up in the peat of the tundra soils, it also blackened the ground's surface. This blackened ground acts as the equivalent of a hot patch of asphalt, soaking up the sun's rays and further melting the permafrost below.
"There is this reinforcing feedback between fire and thawing," Neill explained. "The questions that are critical are: Do these things heal up in time? Or are they feeding each other? That's a big focus of research right now."
Further south, in the mountainous heart of Alaska, Chris Larsen, a geophysicist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and colleagues have been flying small planes over the mountain glaciers with a special kind of surface radar. They've collected data on more than 200 glaciers in the region.
They found that Alaska's glaciers are melting and retreating because of climate change and the process is unlikely to slow down, according to Larsen. Since Alaska is as big as California, Texas and Montana put together, this means a big contribution to sea level rise, according to a June 30 study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
"We finally got a solid number, Alaska is losing 75 gigatons of ice every year," he said.
That's about the same rate as the glacial melt in parts of Antarctica, but only one-third of the melting in Greenland. The melting is creating lakes on the sides of the glaciers, unstable bodies of water that threaten to flood some Alaskan communities.
Larsen says the melting water is also disturbing that Alaskan Current, an important offshore flow that influences the patterns of migrating salmon and other species. Any change in fishing stocks could be a big blow to Alaska, where the seafood industry contributes 78,500 jobs to the Alaskan economy and an estimated $5.8 billion annually, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Smaller critters face big challenges as well, such as the Arctic ground squirrel. Unpredictable spring snow storms are throwing off the timing between when male squirrels awake from their hibernation, and when the females arise, says Michael Sheriff, a biologist at Pennsylvania State University who studies these animals.
"We are looking at whether they can respond to rapid changes in the environment," Sheriff said. "The biggest thing is the fact that climate change in the north isn't just going to bring about earlier springs, it will bring greater overwinter snows and more spring snowstorms."
Ground squirrels are the prime diet for everything from bears and foxes to eagles and coyotes that eke out their living on the northern tundra. The warmer climate in Alaska is forcing many animals to shift their feeding, migrating and nesting habits. Some will survive, others won't.
"It's going to bring more unpredictability," Sheriff said. "But it's not an easy thing to predict how animals will respond to this unpredictability."