Obama will be focusing on climate change when he arrives in Alaska today

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Alaska-bound, Obama renames America’s tallest peak.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Ahead of a historic trip to the Arctic, President Barack Obama erased a former Republican president’s name from North America’s tallest peak in a move applauded in Alaska and derided more than 3,000 miles away in Ohio. But in 1896 a gold prospector named William Dickey heard that McKinley had just won the Republican presidential nomination, and decided to dub North America’s tallest mountain peak in his honor.

Obama departed Monday morning to Anchorage for the start of a three-day visit, bringing the American leader up close to shrinking glaciers, Arctic temperatures and a mix of messy energy politics. Obama flies to Anchorage on Monday morning for a three-day tour of the nation’s largest state, closely choreographed to call attention to the ways Obama says climate change is already damaging Alaska’s stunning scenery. By showcasing thawing permafrost, melting sea ice and eroding shorelines, Obama hopes to raise the sense of urgency to deal quickly to slow climate change in the US and overseas. Far before it became Mount McKinley, members of the Native American Koyukon tribe had dubbed the 20,000-foot mountain Denali, which fittingly means “the high one” in the tribe’s Athabascan language.

Showing solidarity with Alaska Natives, Obama announced Sunday that his administration would rename Mount McKinley as Denali, its traditional Athabascan name. His excursion north of the Arctic Circle will make Obama the first sitting president to set foot in the Alaska Arctic, home to Alaska Natives who have received less attention amid Obama’s recent efforts to improve conditions for Native Americans. A study earlier this year found that Alaska’s glaciers were losing 75 billion metric tons of ice per year — meaning that although Alaska’s mountain glaciers only comprise 11 percent of the world’s total, they’re contributing 25 percent of the losses (and rising sea level) from this source.

There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy. But stripping the mountain of its name honoring former President William McKinley, a son of Ohio, drew loud condemnations from Ohio lawmakers. “This political stunt is insulting to all Ohioans, and I will be working with the House Committee on Natural Resources to determine what can be done to prevent this action,” added Rep. Denali itself has lost a dramatic amount of its ice. 16 percent of Denali National Park and Preserve is covered by glaciers, according to the National Park Service, but “the evidence is clear that Denali’s glaciers are thinning and retreating,” it says. Yet Obama was to navigate far more turbulent political waters when he arrived Monday afternoon in Anchorage, where his grand declarations on climate change have been met with skepticism by leaders in a state that’s heavily dependent on oil revenues that have fallen precipitously. The mountain’s name has been a source of tension between Alaskans and lawmakers in McKinley’s (and Boehner’s) home state of Ohio, who have clung tightly to the name ever since it was formally passed in 1917.

Alaskans continue to refer to the peak as Denali, and have had a standing request to officially change the name back since 1975, when the state’s legislature passed a resolution but saw its efforts thwarted by an Ohio congressman. Data show that Alaska had a very early snow cover loss this year, heating up the ground earlier and helping set the stage for one of its worst wildfire seasons ever: Worsening wildfires: It seems unlikely that the 2015 wildfire season will be Alaska’s worst ever — that honor goes to 2004, when more than 6.5 million acres burned. They took particular offense at his administration’s move just a few weeks ago to give Royal Dutch Shell a final permit for expanded drilling off Alaska’s northwest coast. “I share people’s concerns about offshore drilling.

The Obama administration will work with officials in Ohio “to find an appropriate way to acknowledge President McKinley’s contributions to our country,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. But 2015 is in second place with well over 5 million. “What we’ve been seeing in the last two decades is an increase in the extent of area burned from year to year and a fairly substantial increase in the frequency of these very large fire years,” Scott Rupp, a professor of forestry at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told me back in July. Yet he said the economy still had to rely on oil and gas while it transitions to cleaner renewable fuels, and said his administration was ensuring risks were minimized. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, sought to shift attention back to Alaska’s energy needs. “I want to highlight one aspect of Arctic policy that I hope will be at the forefront of the discussion: the people who live in the region, and their need for sustainable economic activity,” Murkowski said, praising oil revenues for funding advances in medicine, communications and basic infrastructure.

Obama and Kerry are intensely focused on a global climate treaty that nations hope to finalize in December, as the president works to secure his environmental legacy before leaving office. The loss of permafrost can undermine Alaskan roads and infrastructure and also creates the curious phenomenon known as “drunken trees.” But the bigger issue may be climatic. The president has pledged a US cut in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 28 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, and planned to use the Alaska visit to press other nations to commit to similarly ambitious measures.

Scientists have estimated that by the year 2100, permafrost around the world — not just in Alaska, but also in Canada, Siberia and other Arctic nations — could release some 150 gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere if warming continues apace (a gigaton is a billion metric tons). His visit continues Wednesday in Dillingham, in southwest Alaska, where Obama will meet with fishermen locked in an ongoing conflict with miners over plans to build a massive gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest salmon fishery.

But it just goes to show that permafrost emissions could be large enough to seriously complicate efforts to reduce carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. Coastal erosion: In his Aug. 29 radio address that previewed his Alaska trip, Obama mentioned that four Alaskan villages are “in ‘imminent danger’ and have to be relocated. He’ll then trek through wilderness while being taped for an episode of the NBC show “Running Wild with Bear Grylls,” which tests celebrities on their survival skills. Already, rising sea levels are beginning to swallow one island community.” The president is almost certainly referring to the tiny village of Kivalina on the shores of the Chukchi Sea, which is being increasingly battered by extreme waves that, as sea ice dwindles, are more easily generated offshore. Geological Survey recently found that along Alaska’s north coast, an average of 1.4 meters per year of land is vanishing — and in some places rates are far higher than that.

The study also observed that “Projected and observed increases in periods of sea-ice free conditions, as sea-ice melts earlier and forms later in the year, particularly in the autumn, when large storms are more common in the Arctic, suggest that Arctic coasts will be more vulnerable to storm surge and wave energy, potentially resulting in accelerated shoreline erosion and terrestrial habitat loss in the future.” Wildlife havoc: Sharp changes to environments greatly affect the animals living there. Walruses feed at sea but have to rest and prefer to do so atop ice floes in close vicinity to shallow shoals where they can dive and feed at the sea floor. When they’re in a cluster and get spooked — by, say, a human noise or an animal walking by — a stampede can ensue and younger walruses can be killed. Walruses are just one animal species threatened — their current struggle is actually quite similar to that of one predator that they greatly fear, the polar bear.

We can try to protect stranded wildlife, as the Fish and Wildlife Service is doing right now — and we can relocate whole villages if we’re willing to spend the money on it.

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