Watching Global Warming

Copyright 1998 Sarasota Herald-Tribune
September 7, 1998

Global warming trends occur on a scale so broad that naysayers - mostly officers of the American Petroleum Institute and other fossil fuel profiteers - can challenge their identification with relative impunity. But in parts of the world, the effects of climate change are stark and startling.

The shrinkage of permafrost and Arctic and alpine glaciers in Alaska in recent years has been anything but glacial and reflects the impact of global warming in ways unmistakeable to scientists who study such matters. As reported recently in The New York Times, researchers' methodical measurements of glacial mass, amplified by the syndrome called ''drunken forest,'' offer striking evidence of the validity of the phenomenon of climate change.

Unlike the ephemeral weather anomalies of El Nina, which inflict droughts on Florida and tornadoes on the Midwest without leaving signatures of global warming's possible influence, the shrinking footprints of glaciers leave lasting impressions of change. Perhaps most striking is the retreat of the Columbia Glacier eight miles inland from Prince William Sound, where 15 years ago the calving of its icebergs entertained cruise ship passengers.

Other symptoms visible throughout Alaska confirm the phenomenon.

''Drunken forest,'' for instance, results when the melting of permafrost undermines trees, telephone poles and even buildings dependent for stability on its frozen mass. Roads, bridges, potentially entire towns may have to be relocated if the trend continues unabated. Spruce budworms and bark beetles _ pests unable to survive Arctic winters _ are rapidly eliminating entire forests from the Kenai Peninsula to near the Arctic Circle.

What these changes mean to Alaska and its human and wildlife inhabitants over the long term are unclear. But in one of the coldest environmental arenas on Earth, progress in the measurement and observation of global warming's impacts is proceeding at a pace that is anything but glacial and is difficult to deny.

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