Tom Skilling’s Forecast – A Fragile Climate Special: Part 1: Alaska & Glaciers


In Part 1, of Forecast – A Fragile Climate, Tom Skilling and the team travel to Alaska

WGN Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling leads the special series Forecast – A Fragile Climate. In his 50 years as a meteorologist, he has seen the atmosphere do things he never thought possible. It’s what compelled him and the WGN team to travel all across the country in search of the very latest climate research and information. They met with NASA scientists, water experts in a drought-plagued southwest and climatologists in Alaska. There is serious work underway – from tracking Earth’s vital signs to massive climate adaption projects. There is a vast amount of material to cover, and, as Skilling says, “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg!”

In Part 1, Skilling visits his beloved Alaska and scales glaciers changing in shape and size before our very eyes.

Of all the ice-covered regions around the world – places like Greenland, Antarctica, and the Alps — one of the most sizable contributions to global sea level rise comes from Alaska. Runoff from melting glaciers ends up in our oceans. And as snow and ice diminish, Alaska contributes a disproportionate amount of warmth to the entire earth system.

In other words, what happens in Alaska, doesn’t stay in Alaska.

Trail guide Klco, who worked with Skilling and the WGN team, knows every contour and crevasse along the silty ice at Matanuska Glacier.

“(Matanuska Glacier) is a valley glacier. It goes up really gradual. It goes up about 6000 feet over the first 20 miles, then there’s another seven miles of glacier,” he said. “We get 365 new feet of glacier every year, about 395 feet melt out. So on average, we lose 10 meters a year off of the terminus.”

Dr. Brian Brettschneider is a National Weather Service climate scientist. He went to high school in the Chicago suburbs, but he’s called Alaska home for the past 17 years.

“Everyone here knows the climate is changing,” he said. “People in Alaska, you notice it everywhere. There are glaciers you see on the highway, and they are disappearing.”

There’s great concern here. The Arctic is warming at least three times faster than other parts of the planet.

More than 200 miles south of the Matanuska Glacier, runoff from a shrinking Exit Glacier cuts through a rocky basin.

“This area not that long ago would have been covered in ice,” said Laura Sturtz, Director of Interpretation and Education at Kenai Fjords National Park. “We can tell that by the moraines, or rocks, it left behind when it paused in place. … We’re only 11, 12 miles away from going into the ocean right here, so the water that is melting from Exit Glacier and the Harding ice Field is flowing into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise across the globe. If you’ve got less ice on land you’ve got more water in the ocean.”

“So if you are in California, if you are in Florida, if you are in New York, a sizable contribution of the sea level rise is coming from the glaciers in Alaska that are melting,” Brettschneider said.  

“We talk about this thing called arctic amplification,” he said. “Snow and ice act like a mirror for sunlight. When sun hits the snow and ice, almost all of it is reflected back to space like it didn’t happen. Once you warm things up, you change that energy equation. You have less snow on the ground, especially in the shoulder seasons, you have less ice in the arctic ocean. And so when you remove snow and ice now that sun’s energy is completely absorbed by the ground and warms up the atmosphere.” 

There are natural cycles to our climate,  but there’s nothing natural about how fast changes are occurring today, in short time spans.

“One thing that can be a little bit misleading is people see all this ice and you’re flying over and you see these tremendous ice fields and all these glaciers, it can be a little bit of a trap to think. ‘Well, gosh, we still have all this ice. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they are saying,’” Brettschneider said. “It’s really what is missing instead of what is there.”

A number of the last 15 years have been the warmest on record.

“It’s the climate scientists who figured out cycles in the first place. Cycles happen over long time periods,” Brettschneider said. “Frankly, there is no real physical way for the climate system to change as much as it has in the last two decades with just natural forcings. It has to be something else. And the only other something else is greenhouse gases. 

…You add gas to the atmosphere that stores heat, and it’s going to do just that. It’s really that simple.”

“What happens up here matters to people in Chicago, in Memphis, Dallas, Phoenix, Seattle. The climate system doesn’t really know borders,” Brettschneider said. “I am concerned, but I’m also hopeful. Things are moving in the right direction. Are they moving fast enough? That’s a difficult question to answer but we need more of it.”

Brettschneider is right. There are some very positive things going on in the effort to move to cleaner fuels and sources of energy with the goal of reducing harmful carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. We will explore some of those initiatives during our series this week.

Tuesday we take you to the epicenter of Earth science, where NASA scientists are constructing and operating some of the most sophisticated instruments that track our changing planet. We go behind-the-scenes for a look at the serious science and technology from some of our nation’s most knowledgeable climate scientists.

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