Obama calls for more icebreakers in Alaska


Photo credit: Adilyne McKinlay
“In Alaskan summers, all you can smell sometimes is the forest fires,” second-year environmental studies AOC Adilyne McKinlay said. “There was one point this summer when Fairbanks had a cease of outside activity for 24 hours because the smoke was so bad.” McKinlay spent the summer volunteering in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Two days before President Barrack Obama made his way to Alaska on Aug. 30, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the Arctic region, thousands of walruses were forced to congregate on the shore of Alaska near Point Lay, with no solid ice blocks on which to settle. Despite the Arctic region being drastically affected by warming temperatures every day, President Obama called for more Coast Guard icebreakers on the second day of his visit to Alaska in order to gain an advantage in the emerging economic opportunities there. As these events are underway, two climate change courses offered this semester are already analyzing the effects of policy on the development of climate change.

An incredibly broad yet aggressive concept, climate change has recently been receiving more attention from countries around the world. The unprecedented number of walruses forced together last week – an estimated 5,000 to 6,000, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) – is just the tip of the melting iceberg.

That the dramatic scene of these walruses piled off the Alaskan shore coincided with President Obama’s visit to the Arctic was a hopeful sign for environmental activists who expected a strong message from the president. Obama has been the most active yet in advocating for climate change prevention. In fact, on Aug. 3 of this year, the Obama administration released the Clean Power Plan, which set the first-ever national standards to reduce carbon pollution from power plants.

Although President Obama sent a powerful message to world leaders urging them to prepare for climate change prevention or “condemn our children to a world they will no longer have the capacity to repair,” the potential risks of more icebreakers in the region cannot go unnoticed. In a statement released on Sept. 2, the White House pointed out that “Arctic ecosystems are among the most pristine and understudied in the world, meaning increased commercial activity comes with significant risks to the environment.”

With such an indisputable conclusion, President Obama’s call for more of these arctic ships sends mixed messages.

“There seems to be an incongruity here but rarely do I see black and white in the context of policy,” Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies Frank Alcock said. “The president is doing two things at once: he’s calling attention to that fact that climate change is here, it’s now, it’s harming this area and we have to take dramatic actions, and in the same breath there might be some economic opportunities here.”

Alcock’s international climate change course has been tuning in on recent events related to climate change policy through NPR podcasts and various websites. One of the major plans for the course is to focus on preparing for and analyzing the results of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, set to take place at the end of this year.

Professor of Biology Brad Oberle’s course, Biology of Climate Change, also plans to examine new policy on climate change and focus on the way plant and animal life will be affected by these changes. One particular concept covered in the class was positive feedback, essentially the “snowball” effect which explains that once something starts it accelerates at unexpected rates.

Positive feedback in relation to climate change reveals the potential dire consequences of of the Arctic Melt. It illustrates that, once ice starts to melt and the Ice Albedo effect (the level of ice reflectivity) decreases, heat will be drawn to the darker surfaces, further warming the atmosphere and speeding up the melting of the ice. If this ice melts early in the year it dries up the ground which, in turn, sets the stage for wild fires which then allows for the melting of permafrost (frozen underground high in carbon-rich remains of plant life) with no tree covering to keep the ground cool. The melting of permafrost further allows for emissions of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, which leads to more global warming.

Despite this fearful possibility of progression, Oberle remains hopeful. “As climate change becomes more of a reality, policy makers will be encouraged to take a strong stand and lead the way to prevention,” he said.

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