Alaska is having its hottest summer on record.

In July, temperatures in Alaska were as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit; seals and other animals are inexplicably dying, and the once-dependable sea ice is long gone from the shores.

Every year climate change brings new evidence that the Arctic, the antarctic and Alaska are changing more rapidly that the temperate areas of the world.

Temperatures in July were 5.4°F above average and 0.8°F more than the previous warmest month, which was July 2004.

One reason that Alaska is so hot this summer is that the sea ice is at a record low. Normally there is ice near the coastline all summer long and this keeps Alaska somewhat cooler. The ice is now about 150 miles from shore—a phenomenon that has only occurred in recent years and in the past never before September. This year is different.

Young Caribou in Alaska

Since Alaska is so much warmer this year, the permafrost is melting deeper and faster than usual.

Melting permafrost is one of the biggest dangers of warming climates. Permafrost is frozen soil that sometimes extends hundreds of feet underground. The real problem with melting permafrost is that it also contains all kinds of organic material like dead grasses and bushes and even whole dead caribou. All of this stuff is fine as long as it remains frozen, but when it thaws the organic material rots, usually underwater. The bad part of all of this is that when organic stuff rots under water it doesn’t give off CO2. It gives off methane, and methane is a gas that has a much more powerful greenhouse effect than CO2.

This is all part of a powerful feedback effect that goes into gear when permafrost begins to melt. Higher temperatures lead to permafrost melting, methane is released, temperatures rise, move permafrost melts , more methane is released and temperatures rise even more and so on.

Alaskan Coastal range. Photo by Mark Adamu

And there are millions of square miles of permafrost in Alaska which give off millions of tons of methane when they melt. All of this isn’t happening all at once of course, but each summer is a little hotter and each summer more permafrost melts and it isn’t too long before there is a real disaster. The most immanent of these disasters is the melting of all of the arctic and anarctic ice sheets. This is what is called a tipping point, a point which, when passed, is pretty much irreversible.

And then there is the problem of the bacteria that are released when all this permafrost melts. Long-dormant microbes — some trapped in the ice for tens of thousands of years — are beginning to wake up which could potentially come to infect humans with deadly diseases. There have already been a few isolated cases of this in past years.

With the hotter temperatures this year in Alaska , there have been reports this summer of a number of die-offs involving different species. Sea birds, gray whales, ice seals, mussels and krill have been reported dying in surprising numbers, raising questions among Alaska natives and scientists about whether climate change could be the driver.

All in all, the climate in Alaska this summer has been more than worrisome.

Alaskan fishing village
Wildflowers in the Coastal Range, Photo by Mark Adamu

Below are two of the sources from which this essay was taken.

Alaska’s Hottest Month on Record: Melting Sea Ice, Wildfires and Unexpected Die-Offs

Melting permafrost in the Arctic is unlocking diseases and warping the landscape