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Posted Nov. 2, 2006

Alaska Reveals Impact of Global Warming, Says Raskin

Frances Raskin

Frances Raskin

Contact: Mary Wood

Nowhere has the environmental impact of global warming been more evident than Alaska, and the federal government is partly responsible, says Frances Raskin, a staff attorney with the environmental nonprofit Trustees for Alaska.

Raskin, who spoke at the Law School Oct. 16 at an event sponsored by the Virginia Environmental Law Forum and the Human Rights Program, afterwards offered an inside look at the amicus brief she filed on behalf of Alaskan Natives in the U.S. Supreme Court case Massachusetts v. EPA. In the case, Massachusetts is suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to enforce the Clean Air Act, which the state charges includes controlling carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gases. The case, which is on appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, will be heard by the Supreme Court Nov. 29.

In Alaska, Raskin points out in her brief, "the rate of warming is twice that of the rest of the world." The temperature in the state is expected to rise 7 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 100 years.

Alaskan Natives, many of whom traditionally survived on food from hunting and fishing, already have observed changes to wildlife patterns, including the decline of several species. "There have been reported sightings of American robins and salmon, whose normal range does not include the Arctic," Raskin wrote. Warming is also projected to reduce the areas of tundra vegetation, which could affect the number of caribou many Native peoples depend upon.

Melting ice is problematic for polar bears, who can swim only 200 yards from ice sheet to ice sheet when they hunt seals. For Arctic communities, "The thinning and receding sea ice make subsistence hunts more dangerous," she wrote. "If the current pace of melting continues, the seas will rise 10 or more meters, flooding areas inhabited by 25 percent of the U.S. population."

Another threat to human populations includes the melting of permafrost, which is subsurface material that remains continuously frozen for at least two consecutive years.

"When ice-rich permafrost thaws, the surface subsides. Typically, this settling does not occur uniformly over space, but produces a chaotic surface with small hills and wet depressions known as thermokarst terrain," Raskin wrote. "When thermokast occurs beneath a road, house, pipeline, or airfield, it can compromise their structural integrity and lead to collapse.

"The dramatic destruction in Alaska is an early warning for the rest of the world of the devastation that will likely occur if industrialized nations and the industries that drive them fail to significatnly curb their emissions of greenhouse gases," Raskin wrote. "The longer the federal government delays regulation of greenhouse gases, the more severe and long lasting the effects of climate change are certain to be."

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