By MarEx 2015-08-28 19:04:32
U.S. President Barack Obama travels to Alaska on Monday for a three-day visit meant to spotlight warming temperatures, melting glaciers, rising seas and the need to support a strong climate deal during the global climate negotiations in Paris.
Obama will attend the U.S. government hosted GLACIER meeting, and his visit comes at a time when, on both sides of the Bering Strait, summer sea ice has once more dropped to a level that is driving thousands of walruses onto coastal beaches.
Environmental organizations are voicing their concerns.
In Ryrkaypiy in Chukotka, Russia, an estimated 5,000 walruses are hauled out, while across in Alaska, thousands more are hauled out near the village of Point Lay. WWF highlighted the significance of Obama’s visit to the Arctic in a statement, raising concerns about the animals and their environment.
“This past July was the second warmest on record for Alaska,” says Pete Ewins, WWF Arctic Species specialist. “So it’s not surprising that we’re seeing these animals on the beaches quite early. While haul outs can be potentially dangerous to the animals gathered on shore, we’re concerned about what events such as these mean for the health of the entire Arctic marine system.”
During the late summer and early fall, the Pacific walruses of the Chukchi sea north of Alaska and of Chukotka (Russia) prefer to rest on sea ice over the shallow waters of the continental shelf. In those areas they can readily access food on the seabed. However, in most years since 2007 when Arctic sea ice extent plummeted to a record low, walruses have been forced ashore because there has been no sea ice over their preferred shallow feeding areas.
Villagers at both haul out locations are working to protect resting walrus herds from curious onlookers, as walruses hauled out in such large numbers on beaches are prone to being stampeded, killing smaller animals in the crush.
Earth’s Wild Places
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says Obama’s Arctic trip gives him a golden opportunity to demonstrate global leadership, protect one of the last wild places on earth, and make a real difference in our climate future by taking Arctic waters off the table for oil and gas drilling.
“Climate change is already imposing huge and mounting costs on our people, and nowhere is the toll more evident than in Alaska,” says NRDC President Rhea Suh. “Straddling the ragged front lines of climate chaos, the state both suffers from this environmental crisis and contributes to it through the production of fossil fuels.
“One of the most rapidly warming places on the planet, Alaska is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the nation. The first seven months of this year were the second-hottest ever recorded for the period in the state, which averaged 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit above its 20th-century norm.
“Its glaciers and ice fields are melting by the cubic mile and at an accelerating pace, as President Obama will see for himself when he travels outside the city of Seward, site of the Kenai Fjords National Park. Melting glaciers are one reason climate scientists say global sea level is on track to rise by at least three feet, very possibly much more, by century’s end.”
The president will also hear how the loss of coastline is already affecting indigenous people when he visits the northern port of Kotzebue, 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in a state that is home to 40 percent of the federally recognized tribes in the country.
Oil and Gas
“President Obama’s answer to the climate threat has been clear and unstinting,” says Suh. “No leader anywhere has done more to cut the dangerous carbon pollution that’s driving climate chaos. He’s cut it from our cars, our trucks, and our power plants, and he’s laid out an expansive vision for a clean energy future centered around efficiency gains and more wind and solar power.
“He’s opposed efforts to allow oil and gas development on Alaska’s vast Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, nearly 12 million acres of which he’s proposed to designate as protected wilderness, which would put it off-limits to the fossil-fuel industry in perpetuity.
“That’s leadership when and where it counts, and it’s come in the face of virulent opposition by an industry hunkering down to anchor our future in the dirty fuels of the past and all the damage, destruction, and danger they bring.”
However, Obama has also proposed allowing oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean and off the Atlantic coast, beginning as early as 2017. He’s permitted exploratory drilling in Arctic waters, which Shell Oil began this month.
Memo From Our Grandchildren
Sah says: “Memo from our grandchildren: We’re not going to be addicted to oil 30 years from now. Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we’re still burning so much oil three decades from now that we have to put Arctic waters at risk, we will have forsaken the promise of a clean energy future. We will have forsaken our obligation to our children, with catastrophic consequences.
“President Obama has never been one to bet on failure. He’s worked, instead, to ensure success. The Alaska trip offers him a historic chance to build on hope and progress. It’s time to protect the Arctic waters once and for all, for the sake of all they support, for the sake of our climate, for the sake of our children’s future.”