Jim Foudy: Chilling signposts of climate change, from Alaska and elsewhere

Last modified: Saturday, September 19, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — President Obama visited Exit Glacier in Alaska earlier this month and declared it a “signpost” for the impact of climate change on the planet.

My wife, Christine, and I visited Exit Glacier two years ago and there are, literally, signposts along the trail showing how much the glacier has retreated over the years.

We visited several glaciers on that trip. Tour guides would explain their makeup, how they shape the landscape and how they are shrinking. But it was the hike to Exit Glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park that dramatized the change taking place.

The trail runs along a gravel river bed with water flowing down from the ice field. Rangers placed signs along the trail leading to the face of Exit Glacier. Each sign has a year noting when the glacier was at that location. It is a simple, but dramatic, way to show how the glacier has receded over time.

The glacier is the edge of the two-mile-long ice field in the Kenai Mountains. It had receded 1.25 miles since 1815. In the last year it receded 187 feet. Standing at the marker for 1950, the glacier is still a spec in the distance.

You cannot visit Exit Glacier and deny global warming.

In simple terms, global warming is linked to the burning of fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — which spew CO2 gas into the atmosphere. This gas is destroying the Earth’s protective ozone layer allowing more sunlight to get through and raise the temperature of the planet. Glaciers and the polar ice caps melt, ocean levels rise and climate patterns change.

Critics of climate-change science say the glacial melting is part of a continuing cycle of warming and cooling. They say the signpost showing where Exit Glacier was in 1815 is evidence that the glacier was melting well before the industrial age and the invention of the automobile.

True, the climate is always changing. Temperatures go up for long periods and then down, sea levels rise and fall. Over geological eras there have been prolonged ice ages and warming periods.

What science also tells us is that previous large-scale climate shifts were attributed to massive volcanic eruptions, which released large quantities of CO2 and methane gas into the atmosphere. Today, humans are the source of CO2 emissions. We own the climate change.

Scientists also note that the pace of melting is speeding up. Alaskan friends who accompanied us on some of our treks to glaciers often expressed surprise at how much the ice fields had receded since their last visit. This was not just a trick of memory.

In 2012, in a “Science” journal article, a University of Alaska research team reported: “From the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s the glaciers lost about 13 cubic miles a year. In the last five years, that rate has almost doubled.”

Speaking in Anchorage during his visit, President Obama cited new estimates that “Alaska’s glaciers alone lose about 75 gigatons — that’s 75 billion tons — of ice each year.” And citing the University of Alaska research, he noted that the pace of melting “is now twice what it was between 1950 and 2000 — twice as fast as it was just a little over a decade ago.”

The president used the backdrop of glaciers as a bully pulpit to press his case for an international pact to limit earth-warming carbon emissions. The United States and China — the two largest greenhouse gas polluters — are working on an agreement to reduce carbon emissions in advance of a United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris later this year.

In anticipation of that summit, the Pioneer Valley Interfaith Eco-Action group is planning a series of events to highlight climate change and what individuals can do about it. The first events are in connection with the visit of Pope Francis to the United States this coming week.

The pope’s 184-page encyclical on the environment, “Laudato Si” or “Praise Be to You,” calls for immediate global action to stem the degradation of the environment by carbon emissions. It is one of the topics he will address while in America, where he will speak at the United Nations and address a historic joint session of Congress.

On Monday at First Churches in Northampton, on the eve of the pope’s arrival, a scientist, a Christian pastor and a rabbi will discuss the pope’s encyclical. The 7 p.m. program is titled “Laudato Si: Our Care for Our Common Home.” On Thursday, watch parties will view a rebroadcast and discuss the pope’s address to Congress that day. These will be at 7 p.m. at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish on King Street in Northampton and the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst on North Pleasant Street. Similar programs are planned in other communities. The programs are open to all.

While world political leaders debate and posture on global warming, the forums offer citizens a chance to understand the environmental threat.

They may provide signposts for how to respond in our personal lives and in our communities.

Jim Foudy is a former editor and publisher of the Gazette. His column appears the third Saturday of the month.


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