Ruth Macchione's old home in Fairbanks, Alaska, shown here on 26 August 2013, is sinking into the ground. Her late husband hand-built it with sturdy logs, but the house rests on permafrost -- the top layer of which freezes and thaws each year -- so it's now tilted. Photo: Wendy Koch / USA TODAY

By Wendy Koch
9 October 2013

NORTH POLE, Alaska (USA TODAY) – Up the road from Santa Claus Lane, past the candy cane-striped streetlamps, Cathy Richard's backyard has a problem that not even elves — or the big guy in red — could fix.

The wood deck moves up and down, like a slow-motion sleigh. "You leave for work and when you come home, it can be 7 inches higher," says Richard, 36, a married bookkeeper and mom of three children.

She knows the Grinch involved. Her home in this Fairbanks suburb, built in 2007, sits on land that thaws and refreezes so the concrete pillars holding up her deck have crumbled. The front walkway and garage floor are also cracking, and the lumpy lawn has fissures.

Bad news for Richard — and, for the rest of us. Warmer temperatures are thawing the surface layer of land that covers most of Alaska and is known as permafrost (frozen below for at least two years in a row.) This thawing not only damages roads, buildings and airport runways, but also releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases that further warm the atmosphere — not just over Richard's house but worldwide.

The nation's last frontier is — in many ways — its ground zero for climate change. Alaska's temperatures are rising twice as fast as those in the lower 48, prompting more sea ice to disappear in summer. While this may eventually open the Northwest Passage to sought-after tourism, oil exploration and trade, it also spells trouble as wildfires increase, roads buckle and tribal villages sink into the sea.

USA TODAY traveled to the Fairbanks area, where workers were busy insulating thaw-damaged roads this summer amid a record number of 80-degree (or hotter) days, as the eighth stop in a year-long series to explore how climate change is changing lives.

The pace of permafrost thawing is "accelerating," says Vladimir Romanovsky, who runs the University of Alaska's Permafrost Laboratory in Fairbanks. He expects widespread degradation will start in a decade or two. By mid-century, his models suggest, permafrost could thaw in at least a third of Alaska and by 2100, in two-thirds of the state.

"This rapid thawing is unprecedented" and is largely due to fossil-fuel emissions, says Kevin Schaefer of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo. He says it's already emitting its own heat-trapping carbon dioxide and methane, but the amount will skyrocket in the next 20 to 30 years. "Once the emissions start, they can't be turned off."

Telltale signs are common — from huge potholes in parking lots to collapsed hill slopes and leaning trees in what are called "drunken forests" in Denali National Park, home of the majestic Mount McKinley — North America's tallest peak.

"You can see and hear the ice melting," says Ted Schuur, a permafrost expert at the University of Florida who's doing field studies in central Alaska. He says permafrost contains soil and plant matter as well as chunks of ice as big as cars. When the ice melts, the ground sinks. He's seen it with his own cabin near Fairbanks, which was listing until he leveled one side with adjustable foundation piers.

Ruth Macchione, an 84-year-old grandmother in Fairbanks, has also witnessed the damage. She and her late husband raised nine children in a home he built more than 50 years ago with logs that he sanded and polished. He lived there until his death in 1986 and she stayed until 2000, when she was forced to move to a small new house next door.

"Everything's tilted," she says, gazing at the old family home that is sinking into the ground. For years, she put furniture and other items on blocks to try to level them, but it got to the point where she could no longer open or close the doors.

"It's a shame," she says sadly of her partly submerged homestead. "It was well-built." […]

We're on the edge of a major transition point," Schuur says, pointing to a 2013 report he authored that found tundras worldwide may already be emitting more carbon than they absorb. He says global permafrost emissions will be significant — akin to those from current deforestation — but probably much less than those from power plants, cars and other burning of oil and gas. […]

"All climate impacts are connected to each other," says Sarah Trainor, who directs the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska, noting the state has had more large wildfires in the past two decades than in the prior 40 years. Wildfires emit their own greenhouse gases that intensify global warming. [more]

Alaska sinks as climate change thaws permafrost

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