When I reached out to Chris earlier this week to ask him what life in the 49th state was like during this strange and scary time, he told me he happened to be waiting for a tree specialist to come out to his property that very afternoon. “I just found out today that almost every one of the spruce trees in our yard will have to be removed due to infestation by bark beetles,” he said, with evident sadness. The beetles are native to Alaska, but higher temperatures and drier conditions are aiding and abetting these pests, first by allowing the insects to reproduce twice a year instead of once, and second by making trees weaker and more water stressed, and thus more vulnerable. Though the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage suffered extensive infestations in the 1990s, killing millions of acres’ worth of trees, Chris says the beetles haven’t been a pervasive problem in the Anchorage region until very recently.
Thanks to climate scientists, we know that the average global temperature has risen by 1 degree Celsius over the past century. What many people may not realize is that over the same time frame, Alaska’s average temperature has risen twice as much. To hear Chris tell it, the changes resulting from this phenomenon can be seen—and felt—just about everywhere. “My first winter here, in Fairbanks from 1988 to 1989, was the coldest I’ve ever experienced. Temperatures of minus 40 were common, and even 50 and 60 below weren’t unheard of.”
That was the same winter he witnessed his first glacier: the Portage Glacier, just south of Anchorage. “There was a brand-new visitor center that had just been built,” he recalls. “It had a direct view, and it was a magnificent sight.” But when he went back to visit with his family last month, “the glacier had retreated so that you now have to take a boat to be able to see it. Every glacier I visited in my first decade up here has retreated so much, in fact, that sometimes it takes great effort to be able to see it.”
As a wildlife biologist, Chris is especially aware of how climate change is affecting animal populations in his home state. “Moose are at an increased susceptibility to infestation by ticks and other parasites as these pest species extend their range farther north,” he says. “Caribou habitat is also at greater risk as wildfires increase in size and intensity. Lichens, which are the primary winter food source for caribou, are directly impacted by these intense fire events, which result in changes to their abundance and availability. And most people are already aware of the effects of decreased sea ice on the ability of polar bears to hunt for seals, their primary food source.”