I’ve just returned from perhaps the most unusual trip of my life. I was part of a small delegation of scientists and leading Christian evangelicals traveling to Alaska to gain, together, first-hand looks at the ongoing effects and implications of climate change (see footnotes for more background on how these people of faith and science came together).
Our group featured some A-team all-stars, including Nobel Prize winner Eric Chivian (he founded the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School), Jim McCarthy (he is president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science), famed botanist Peter Raven, and National Association of Evangelicals president Leith Anderson and vice-president Richard Cizik, among others. Rev. Anderson put the trip’s rationale this way for the evangelicals: “Our theology has been in place for 2,000 years, and we’re connecting it to 21st Century science.” Dr. Chivian said, “Both scientists and evangelicals see life on Earth as sacred and share the same deep sense of responsibility about protecting it.” And while some hardliners in the Christian Right are afraid that concerns about nature will undermine their agenda, Cizik told us that more than 60 percent of American evangelicals surveyed actually said they are “concerned” or “very concerned” about global warming. (For a full list of the delegates and more details, see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070829120500.htm)
Our group traveled to Seward, Homer, and Shishmaref.
The Kenai Peninsula; Seward and Homer
Seward and Homer are in the southern part of the state, on Alaska’s stunning Kenai coast.
Perhaps most emblematic of climate change is that nearly all the world’s glaciers are melting. We walked to, or viewed, or flew over, glaciers that have shrunk miles and thinned considerably in recent years, at accelerated rates. In some parts of the world this has serious implications for cities founded to take advantage of snowmelt and glacier melt. Such cities’ water supplies are threatened. Here on the Kenai, we found implications for Alaskan wildlife.
Sockeye and Chum Salmon had migrated upstream and were spawning.
But in some streams, they’re now having trouble with low water levels and temperatures that stress them, their eggs, and their young.
Low water also means lost wetlands, and many of Alaska’s wetlands and small lakes are shrinking, drying, and becoming forested land. We saw that too, with trees growing on former bogs where we were shown sediment cores indicating these places never had trees before.
Further, insects such as the Spruce Bark Beetle, which formerly couldn’t survive the cold of most winters, are now thriving. They’re infesting and killing trees.
Where we were, all the large old spruces were dead, and from the air about half the forest consisted of dead trees.
Next, these dried-out trees become susceptible to wildfires. We saw many burned acres. Before they burn, if possible, people cut the trees off large areas of land. You might have lived in house in the forest and suddenly find yourself with a view of the ocean. With logging roads in, and trees out, the next stage is development. Real estate agents, infesting the place like the beetles they’re replacing, aggressively advertise “emerging view” properties.
This is clearly bad for wildlife, and for landscapes that people identify with, including lands full of forests, cold hard-flowing streams, and bountiful runs of salmon. But is a little warming really a problem for people in a state once dubbed Seward’s Icebox?
The village of Shishmaref lies on a small barrier island just off the Seward Peninsula and almost on the Arctic Circle. On its ocean side it confronts the Chukchi Sea. Its Inupiat Eskimo natives have lived here at least several centuries, and some say the place has been continually occupied for as long as 4,000 years. This site is ideal because it is a small island with two easy inlets to the ocean for seal-hunting and netting salmon, and access to a broad shallow bay where they can reach hunting and gathering sites on the mainland. A visitor might see them as in the middle of nowhere. They see themselves as living at the center of their food supplies.
Kids now splash and swim in the ocean. They couldn’t do that before. Fun. But climate change now threatens their homes, island, and self-identity. Several things are happing. Sea ice is melting earlier, exposing the island to severe winter storm waves. Battering winds can take away up to 30 feet of land in one storm. Nearly two-dozen houses have been lost. Unusually high tides with no wind, called “silent storms,” also create erosion.
A few feet below the surface of the ground, the soil has for thousands of years been permanently frozen. But this “permafrost” is melting, leaving bluffs more vulnerable to erosion by waves. Melting permafrost is a problem with food storage too, because the natives used to dig to the permafrost to put staples like seal meat into summer cold-storage.
As ice melts earlier, the whole marine ecosystem is changing. Rich spring plankton blooms used to happen when ice melted around April. At that time there was enough sunlight for photosynthesis by single-celled plant plankton (phytoplankton) but it was too cold for tiny animal “zooplankton.” The plant-plankton bloomed and sank, taking nutrients to the bottom, creating rich seafloor populations of shrimp-like amphipods and shellfish that were heavily relied on by Gray Whales, Walruses, diving ducks, and others.
But now the sea ice melts when there’s not enough light for the plant-plankton, so the nutrients that were in the ice just dissipate. Later in the spring, warm and stable surface water allows a bloom but it’s less intense, and it comes at a time when the water’s warm enough for zooplankton to live in. The zooplankton graze the plant plankton before it can sink. It’s also warm enough for fish to move in to take advantage of the new zooplankton populations. So the whole food chain shifts away from links favoring whales and ducks to a chain favoring fish such as Pollock that are expanding northward.
Seals and Walrus—staple foods for Shishmaref’s 600 people—are less available as ice melts earlier and moves farther away. And the animals themselves are suffering. Walruses are coastal animals that forage for shellfish on the continental shelf. As sea ice shrinks away from the coastlines, Walruses must commute farther between ice and foraging areas. Recently, as commutes have gotten too long, they’ve begun abandoning their pups. Diving ducks of certain species are crashing in numbers. Seals of species that give birth on sea ice are facing hard times. And Polar Bears, which depend on ice for hunting seals, are also having difficulty as ice disappears. Drowned Polar Bears have been reported as distances between ice increase dramatically (the bears can swim tens of miles, but not hundreds). Skinny bears, too thin to raise cubs, indicate major problems for these animals.
And for people. Like Polar Bears, Eskimo hunters can no longer rely on the stability or even presence of sea ice. And additional snow cover (warming air is actually making more snow) makes ice hard to read. When an Eskimo snowmobile crashes through thin ice that experience tells them should have been about six feet thick, and a person drowns—as has happened several times in Shishmaref—it means global warming is killing people, too.
So with their way of life washing, melting, and moving away from under them, the people of Shishmaref voted to move. They want to lift their homes and the nice school off the ground, and move them over the ice about ten miles to an unoccupied site on the mainland, a familiar place they’ve long used for picking berries in summer. That will take an estimated $180 million dollars. Since they voted in 2002 to move, they don’t seem any closer to figuring out where that money will come from. Meanwhile, they have gotten money to armor their beach with large boulders sent from Nome. That will buy some time.
Shishmaref is a messy place with no paved streets, full of abandoned snowmobiles and mechanical junk, beset by problems from the influx of Western food (kids constantly eat candy and drink soda, and even many grade-schoolers have rotten teeth).
Yet community bonds are stronger here than perhaps anywhere I’ve ever been. No one seems to consider simply moving away. The problem facing them is how to move their community, so that they remain together. This commitment to their place and to each other deeply touched me. And I found that, yes, it seemed critical to save it. The place seemed touched by magic when, on our last night, we were outside stargazing at about one a.m. with sundown still blushing the western sky, green curtains of the Northern Lights snaking through the heavens, and a full lunar eclipse—all together at once. Truly awesome.
Ultimately, warming and sea level rise will take the sandy island of Shishmaref. As I pondered their ponderous plight and the difficulties of moving 600 people 10 miles to an unoccupied site, several thoughts suddenly struck me: One, I am them. The arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, so their plight is headed my way; my house, which I also occupy because of easy access to food from the sea, is just a few sandy feet above sea level. Last winter, our neighborhood lost several yards of beach. Much more importantly, I thought this: “If these 600 people are having so much trouble with a short move to an unoccupied site, what happens when it comes time to move millions of people from a sea-flooded Bangladesh?
The night before we left Alaska we enjoyed a meal of salmon and crab legs, part of Alaska’s unparalleled, precious—I might say sacred—ocean bounty. For desert, fittingly, we were served “baked Alaska.”
As scientists, we have scientific authority. But for moral authority, people look to religious leaders. Scientists develop information about how the world is changing. Religions formulate responses to the changing world. These two most powerful forces in society need each other if we are to chart a path of survival into the future.
If you’d like to see more on this trip, note that the PBS TV program “NOW,” hosted by David Brancaccio, sent a crew to travel with us; they plan to feature our trip on the show sometime in October.
– Carl Safina
FOOTNOTES: A while back I envisioned creating a dialogue between leading scientists and leading evangelical Christians to help blunt the culture wars and enlist broader support for scientific findings, especially regarding matters of conservation, the natural environment, and its implications for humanity’s well-being. This dialogue has become reality, spearheaded by the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School (I’m on their board), and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). In my opinion, this would not have been possible without the courage of NAE vice president Richard Cizik, whose public statements about his changed conscience on climate change sparked in me the idea of seeking dialogue. Cizik has been steadfast throughout. The Center for Health and the Global Environment has been likewise pivotal in convening this dialogue.
The initiative has stirred some controversy among evangelicals, some of whom are still actively debating the source and severity of current climate change (see: http://www.christianpost.com/article/20070118/25243_’Latte-Sippers,_Bible-Thumpers’_Tackle_Climate_Change.htm).
[Among scientists there is near-universal consensus that Earth’s current accelerated warming is human-caused and potentially dangerous to agriculture, water supplies, global peace and security, low-lying countries and coastal cities, natural habitats, and other species. While literally thousands of scientists and hundreds of peer-reviewed published papers have developed and continue to deepen this consensus, approximately five credentialed climatologists have expressed opposing views.] For the state of the science as vetted by thousands of researchers and the governments of dozens of countries, visit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at http://www.ipcc.ch/.
Spirit of Friendship
On my way to Alaska I stopped in Ohio for a one-day workshop. It was the first of an initiative we are calling The Friendship Project, whose goal is to simply foster broad new, ongoing dialogues between many Christian evangelicals and various practicing scientists on the topics of biodiversity, the environment, and global warming. The evangelicals wrap concern for nature and the planet’s life-support systems nicely within the graceful term “Creation care.”
As evangelicals (especially younger ones looking for involvement in worthy causes) become less driven by “wedge issues” and increasingly drawn to matters of wider social relevance like poverty, justice, human trafficking, and the like, Creation care is gaining attention, and the relationship between matters of environment, human health, and justice are becoming increasingly seen as matters of religious concern. My role is to help open lines of communication and convey some of the scientific understanding. This workshop was convened by professor Stephen Weeks of the University of Akron, Rev. Ken Wilson of the Vineyard Churches, and myself.
— Carl Safina