Category Archives: Northern Living

Scientists: It’s not too late yet for polar bears

From The Associated Press, Wednesday, December 15, 2010:

Two groups of scientists are suggesting a sliver of hope for the future of polar bears in a warming world.

A study published online Wednesday rejects the often used concept of a “tipping point,” or point of no return, when it comes to sea ice and the big bear that has become the symbol of climate change woes. The study optimistically suggests that if the world dramatically changed its steadily increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, a total loss of critical summer sea ice for the bears could be averted.

Another research group projects that even if global warming doesn’t slow – a more likely near-future scenario – a thin, icy refuge for the bears would still remain between Greenland and Canada.

A grim future for polar bears is one of the most tangible and poignant outcomes of global warming. Four years ago, federal researchers reported that two-thirds of the world’s polar bear habitat could vanish by mid-century. Other experts foresee an irreversible ice-free Arctic in the next few years as more likely.

The new study, which challenges the idea of a tipping point, says rapid ice loss could still happen, but there’s a chance that the threatened bears aren’t quite doomed.

Continue reading: Scientists: It’s not too late yet for polar bears

EPA, others balk at Tanana rail bridge

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Wednesday, December 15, 2010:

Federal environmental regulators said Friday a bridge proposed to span the Tanana River represents too big of an environmental risk.

The concern may not stop the project, which has attracted strong advocacy from public officials in the Interior, but it represents at least a crimp in the plan. Managers hope to start construction next year on a bridge-and-levee project that could last four years.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wrote its letter of objection Friday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It follows a similar letter sent in November and arrives alongside similar concerns from several other public agencies.

The Corps is processing a permit application for the project’s sponsor, the Alaska Railroad Corp. The railroad, with funding from the Department of Defense and the state Legislature, wants the bridge to help the military, a major client, get year-round access to huge military training grounds south of the river.

The 3,300-foot bridge would be the longest in the state.

School district tightens air quality restrictions for recess, practices

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Wednesday, December 15, 2010:

The school district recently tightened air quality guidelines that govern when students are allowed outside for school-related activities.

Recess and practices should be moved inside or canceled when particulate matter levels are 176 micrograms per cubic meter or higher, levels deemed unhealthy by the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

“Clearly we want kids to be physically active and we want them to be able to get exertion with good air quality,” said superintendent Pete Lewis.

The borough scales air quality into six levels, with level one being “good,” level six being “hazardous” and level three being “unhealthy.” The school district shifted its ranges about 20 micrograms lower in November to match the borough.

When particulate levels are between 81 and 175 micrograms per cubic meter for one hour — unhealthy for sensitive groups — recess should be limited and athletic coaches should give athletes extra recovery and keep extra water and cell phones handy. Between 176 and 300 micrograms — unhealthy for everyone — recess and all practices should move inside. Competitions can be held outside with extra precautions. Above 301 micrograms — very unhealthy for everyone — all outdoor activity, practices and games should be canceled.

High particulate levels usually coincide with cold temperatures.

Are Alaska’s wildfires accelerating global warming?

From Alaska Dispatch, Sunday, December 12, 2010:

A series of warmer summers and drier springs in Interior Alaska has forced wildfires to burn deeper into the region’s ancient peat, releasing far more carbon dioxide into the air than previously thought, according to a new study by a team of scientists.

The longer-burning fires, and longer burn season, has dramatically increased the release into the atmosphere of carbons stored over eons by Alaska’s black spruce ecosystem, a dynamic that threatens to accelerate global warming even more.

The result may be a climate game-changer.

Alaska’s boreal forests — long thought to be one of the Arctic’s main carbon sinks and a stabilizing influence against global warming — have begun to spew out more greenhouse gas than they take in, according to a study by University of Guelph plant biologist Merritt Turetsky, of Ontario, Canada, and six other researchers.

“Essentially this could represent a runaway climate change scenario in which warming is leading to larger and more intense fires, releasing more greenhouse gases and resulting in more warming,” said lead author Turetsky, in a release about the study, to be published in Nature Geoscience. “This cycle can be broken for a number of reasons, but likely not without dramatic changes to the boreal forest as we currently know it.”

Continue reading: Are Alaska’s wildfires accelerating global warming?

Group developing efficient homes for rural Alaska

From Alaska Journal of Commerce, Saturday, December 10, 2010:

With high fuel prices and harsh winter climes, constructing energy-efficient housing in rural Alaska communities can be a difficult task that is compounded by the prohibitively high costs.

In Fairbanks, Jack Hebert and a team of engineers with the Cold Climate Housing Research Center are rising to the challenge, designing and building prototype homes and empowering communities to build more of them for themselves.

In 2008, the CCHRC began its Sustainable Northern Shelter Program. CCHRC designs sustainable home technology, with its aim being to reduce the amount of fuel used to heat rural homes.

The group contracts with local crews to get the homes built. In fact, CCHRC officials don’t actually build the homes; with input from the locals, they design it and the locals themselves build them.

Consultations with the community help establish what their cultural needs are, among other things, Hebert said.

The goal, Hebert said, is to enable local residents to build their own sustainable homes without the aid of outsiders.

 “The wisdom of the people who have lived here for 10,000 years is important,” Hebert said.

Continue reading:  Group developing efficient homes for rural Alaska

Fairbanks Borough Assembly considers $1 million in upgrades to landfill

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Saturday, December 10, 2010:

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly is looking at more than $1 million in new funding for an ongoing landfill project on South Cushman.

The project includes two major parts: sealing sections of the landfill and building a line that circulates moisture through the closed sections. The first phase of the three-year project was completed during the summer and cost about $6 million.

Both parts were undertaken so the landfill will comply with federal and state regulations. They also align with plans for methane capture project the public works department has on the drawing board.

On Thursday, the assembly moved forward with two sources of state funding for the project. The rest of the funding comes from tipping fees paid by municipalities and other customers.

Landfill managers are required to continually close cells as they fill, said Scott Johnson, director of public works for the borough. This prevents landfill gas, which contains methane and carbon dioxide, from escaping at the top and the bottom of each cell.

“We seal it with a chemically impervious membrane,” he said.

That membrane is buried by gravel, soil and grass, “so you see a grassy hillside,” he said.

Parts of the old landfill and newer landfill were closed this summer. The assembly requested $340,000 in additional funding from Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to go toward the same project.

“I wanted to grab on to that because it’s 100 percent reimbursement,” Johnson said.

Tainted wells in North Pole spur Alaska officials to issue garden alert

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Monday, December 13, 2010:

The state is preparing to caution gardeners using well water contaminated with sulfolane.

Department of Environmental Conservation project manager Ann Farris said a study last summer shows the chemical contaminates garden plants.

“The bottom line is that sulfolane was in the plants,” Farris sad. “We have already asked Flint Hills (Resources) to be prepared to provide people with water for their gardening until we can get more information on the toxicity or on the uptake of sulfolane in these plants.”

About 200 wells in North Pole and outside the city have water contaminated with sulfolane, an industrial solvent used to refine oil.

A fact sheet detailing the garden study and making recommendations is due in the coming weeks, Farris said.

Flint Hills discovered the groundwater contamination last year. It stretches from the refinery to about three miles northwest of the refinery.

Sufferers testify about ills of wood smoke

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Thursday, December 9, 2010:

School counselor Dawn Brashear enjoyed good health until about two years ago.

That was about the same time residents near her school, Woodriver Elementary School, began installing outdoor wood boilers.

Now Brashear has chronic sinus problems, including a cyst, that doctors tell her is related to breathing air pollution.

Woodriver school is located off Chena Pump Road in west Fairbanks and lies in one of the community’s multiple air pollution problem areas.

Brashear was one of more than a dozen people who testified Wednesday before the Air Pollution Control Commission, an advisory panel to Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins.

Air quality warnings should reflect changes in altitude

From The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Wednesday, December 7, 2010:

As part of the continuing discussion about improving air quality in Fairbanks, the borough and the state should be developing a new system to communicate health warnings  to the public.

The blanket warnings still in use are not accurate for every part of the community.

We need a monitoring system that recognizes that the pollution levels on the valley floor in Fairbanks and in North Pole are higher than in the  hills.

In addition, in the neighborhoods with heavy localized smoke, the current system doesn’t reflect how bad the problem is for some residents.

The generalized pollution reports offer  a misleading image of air conditions, typically repeated by the news media without scrutiny. The state does post a notice on its website about these limitations, but a better system would go a long way to educate people about air quality.

Continue reading: Air quality warnings should reflect changes in altitude

A warning at climate talks: Glacier melt speeds up

From The Associated Press, Wednesday, December 7, 2010:

The lives and livelihoods of people in South Asia are at “high risk” as global warming melts glaciers in the Himalayas, sending floods crashing down from overloaded mountain lakes and depriving farmers of steady water sources, U.N. and other international experts reported Friday.

Worldwide, “since the beginning of the 1980s, the rate of ice loss has increased substantially in many regions, concurrent with an increase in global mean air temperatures,” the U.N. Environment Program said.

Glaciers in southern South America and Alaska’s coastal mountains have been losing mass faster and for longer than glaciers elsewhere in the world, it said.

The new U.N. assessment of recent glacier research was issued at annual climate talks, where delegates were expected, once again this year, to fail to reach agreement on long-term mandatory action to rein in emissions of global warming gases.