This article is part of a series on climate change, the effects of fossil fuels, and ways towards a sustainable future.
You can make your voice heard on these issues. Alaska’s own Senator Murkowski is the Chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Tell her to act on climate change by signing our petition, sending a letter we’ve written, or contacting her yourself. Her office can be reached at 202-224-6665, by mail at 709 Hart Senate Building, Washington, D.C. 20510, or through this contact form.
Photograph by Accent Alaska
The costs of fossil fuel dependence are many. Alaska is facing the financial woes of an oil-based economy, and just about every government that deals in oil also has to deal with the corruption that comes along with it. The heaviest price, however, is paid directly by our planet and the people who inhabit it. By burning fossil fuels, we taint our water and air, and warm our planet. The effects of climate change are proving deadly to species across the globe - including humans. The world is in for full-on climate catastrophe if we do not address our fossil fuel usage, but this does not mean these are the problems of tomorrow. The world is already feeling the heat of climate change. Here’s a shortlist of some of the environmental problems the fossil fuel industry is responsible for.
It’s well known that the oil industry has a history of polluting water. The Exxon Valdez oil spill remains in the collective memory of Alaskans - largely because it continues to affect the ecosystems around Prince William Sound. But such massive oil spills are just the tip of the iceberg. Smaller pipeline leaks are a far too common occurrence, hundreds happening in America alone each year. The extraction of fossil fuels regularly involves dumping chemicals into water sources - including those where people get their drinking water. Oil companies who skirted environmental regulations poisoned the waters of the Amazon river, increasing cancer risk for those who live nearby. America’s watersheds have also been contaminated. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas involves the use of chemicals known to be toxic to humans and animals. It is near impossible, with current technology, to ensure that these toxins stay out of drinking water. Whole communities have had their tap water compromised by gas extraction, and the ecosystems around our rivers have been damaged as well.
The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill wreaked havoc on Alaskan ecosystems / Photograph by Natalie Fobes
The extraction and combustion of fossil fuels contaminates not just the water we drink, but also the air we breath. The fossil fuel industry pumps a wide assortment of chemicals into the atmosphere, with various consequences to our health. Benzene has been known to cause cancer, nitrogen oxides have been linked to respiratory problems, and sulfur dioxide has recently been proven to cause heart disease. Thousands of deaths occur every year due to inhalation of the fine particles that fossil fuel-fired power plants produce. Additionally, these pollutants lead to the fall of acid rain, which damages soil and surface waters.
Another pollutant that we put into the air by burning fossil fuels is carbon dioxide, which functions as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the planet. Global temperatures have risen close to 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution. Temperatures in Alaska have been rising at twice the rate as the rest of the country. Just one symptom of this problem has been thawing permafrost. As the layer of frozen soil gets thinner, trees tilt in ‘drunken forests’. Lack of snowfall has spelled bad news for Yellow Cedars, which are dying off en masse where there is no longer a layer of snow to protect their roots from freezing. The ecosystems that relied on previously healthy forests are being thrown into turmoil as well.
Due to the melting permafrost layer, trees have been tilting over in 'drunken forests' / Photograph by Tingjun Zhang
Rising temperatures also means melting ice, which in turn means rising sea levels. Alaska’s glaciers have been a major player in pouring water into the oceans - losing ice roughly at the rate of 75 billion tons a year. Seas have risen somewhere between 4 and 8 inches in the last hundred years, and it is unclear how much they will continue to rise. Already, island coastlines are beginning to sink below the waterline - some are in danger of disappearing altogether. In another hundred years, cities along America’s east coast could go under as well.
Climate change is already impacting weather across the globe. As more water enters the seas and atmosphere, rains become heavier and floods more probable. Many of the pacific islands threatened by rising sea levels have also been faced with floods recently. Storms, too, have been getting more vicious. Typhoon Haiyan intensified, due to changes in the climate, to become the most powerful storm to ever hit land, taking thousands of lives with it. Alaskans haven’t gotten off without their share of extreme weather events. Last year, a massive storm - the largest the region has ever recorded - brought 100 mile an hour winds to the Shemya Islands. This February, thundersnow was spotted in Nome - a bizarre indicator for an area that rarely sees any sort of electrical storm.
Changing weather patterns make drier areas drier, cause snow to melt earlier, and may also be sparking more lightning strikes. All of this has bred the perfect equation for an increase in wildfires. Nowhere has the burn been felt worse than in Alaska. It seems we’re on pace to set records in the area of land burned this year. Particularly worrying about these blazes - besides the immediate threats they pose to human and animal habitats alike - is their potential to accelerate global warming. When wildfires melt away at the permafrost layer, they release more carbon into the atmosphere - playing into a vicious cycle that will contribute to more fires in the future.
This wildfire season in Alaska is on pace to blaze by previous records / Photograph by the Alaskan Type 1 Incident Management Team
Carbon dioxide is not only troubling in the atmosphere. As we produce more of this gas, more is absorbed into the oceans, increasing the acidity of the water. Ocean acidification obstructs calcification, so shellfish have a harder time forming their shells. Coral often become bleached in acidified waters, and algae tend to die off, throwing wrenches into ocean food chains. The fisheries of the Gulf of Alaska are especially threatened by this changing ocean chemistry. When organisms at the bottom of the food chain struggle to survive, the fish that people sustain their livelihoods from suffer as well.
Loss of Species
We’ve all by now probably heard about the plight of the polar bears, whose habitats are literally floating out to sea as arctic ice melts. But these bears are not the only species feeling the heat. Human-induced changes to ecosystems, on land and in water, are playing a role in what some scientists are calling the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. If climate change continues to speed up, we could soon be losing species as fast as they were going when the dinosaurs died off.
Yet another species facing the adverse effects of climate change is Homo Sapiens. The National Institute of Health lists a whole slew of health problems that climate change can induce - from asthma, to cancer, to neurological conditions. Already, hundreds of thousands of people die each year, many due to overheating or other weather events. The developing world has suffered the worst, and is expected to suffer more as food production is threatened by droughts and floods and clean water becomes more scarce. Nations whose people have the most to lose to climate change also have fewer resources to alleviate the loss - while those countries who are leading contributors to the problem have money set aside to deal with the fallout.
Typhoon Haiyan left many displaced from their homes in the Phillipines / Photograph by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
Cultures in Danger
Individual lives aren’t the only thing our species stands to lose to climate change - whole cultures are threatened as well. The ways of life of indigenous groups are often tightly tied to the land. The Nukak-Maku people in Colombia need glacial runoff water to subsist in their homelands. As glaciers retreat, fishing and agriculture become harder for these people, forcing some to abandon their traditions for life in the city. In Barrow, Alaska, melting ice has made it more difficult for the Native Inupiats to subsist off of bowhead whales as their ancestors have done for ages. Another Native Alaskan village, Newtok, is being forced to completely relocate, due to erosion accelerated by the melting permafrost. The people of the Carteret Islands, too, have had to abandon their home due to rising sea levels, becoming refugees to the climate crisis.
Clean water, breathable air, biodiversity, human culture - these things are invaluable. If we want them to be around much longer, we cannot continue to depend on fossil fuels. Despite the damages that have already been done, it is not too late to act to address climate change. By transitioning to renewable energy sources, we can halt the harm we do to our planet by burning fossil fuels. If we put in the work to take care of the Earth, we will build a future with a liveable, clean climate.