Alaska winter 2020 is either icier than in a long time, or so short on ice the census takers can’t drive the ice roads.
Public radio will tell you both.
The latest version from NPR is this:
The latest version from KYUK, a public radio station actually on the front lines in the Southwest Alaska community of Bethel is this:
The NPR version appeared online Feb. 10. Democrat Congressional candidate Alyse Galvin, or more likely her staff, picked the story up nine days later and used it for a fundraising pitch.
“While the rest of the nation waits until spring to be counted, the Census kicks off in our state because in more remote parts of Alaska, it’s easier to travel when the ground is frozen,” the campaign said.
“But just like so many other aspects of Alaskan life, climate change is complicating matters.
“The ice roads that census takers and other travelers rely on have not been reliably freezing over, making traveling by snowmachine dangerous and forcing people to travel by plane more often.”
Somebody got something badly wrong. Just ask Tim Hewitt, the veteran Alaska wilderness hiker who was out on the bitterly cold Yukon River while these stories were being reported.
He was wishing to see a snowmachine go by to pack in a trail, but it was so cold not many people were moving.
Ice, ice and more ice
The same day Galvin made her plea for help in ousting climate change skeptic Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, KYUK posted its story headlined “Ice Road Plowed To Sleetmute.”
“….The ice road now stretches about 355 miles from Tuntutuliak, located south of Bethel, to Sleetmute,” the story below reported.
“That’s longer than most traditional highways in the state, but it’s likely a bit rougher in places given that the road is a frozen river. The previous record was about 200 miles from Bethel to Crooked Creek in March 2018. The ice road allows for snowmachine and vehicle traffic in a region that otherwise relies on unpredictable airplane travel in the winter.”
So who to believe here?
The NPR story is many times longer than the KYUK story and far more entertaining.
“Maybe they will not have winter,” one subhead says.
“For Diana Therchik, the operations manager for the Toksook Bay Sub-regional Clinic, this was partly foreseeable,” the story continues.
“The rising temperatures remind her of what Yup’ik elders have long predicted, and she wonders if census workers may encounter a vastly different Alaska by the next U.S. census in 2030.
‘The way things are going, maybe they won’t have snow. Maybe they will not have winter,’ Therchik says. ‘That’s like so many years from now, and I just don’t know.'”
Who could have known Yup’ik elders were predicting years without winter before climate change became a thing? Or that winter could be gone in a decade.
Do facts matter?
The monthly average temperatures for the winter months in Toksook Bay, a community along the Bering Sea on the far Southwest Alaska coast, is reported to be 17 degrees in December, 10 degrees in January and 15 degrees in February.
The Washington Post today ran a photo of a cold and frozen Toksook with a story headlined ” Weather whiplash: Alaska is off to a frigid start in 2020 after record warm 2019.”
It reported that “‘The Last Frontier’ has recently endured some of its coldest weather in eight years, with temperatures crashing as low as minus-60 in some spots,” but was careful to point out that “the intensity of the cold is tamer than it was several decades ago, which experts link to climate change.”
That’s true. Climate is determined by long term averages not wild, year-to-year variations in weather.
The latest projections on climate warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) call for a temperature rise in the Arctic “polar region,” the fastest warming part of the globe, of from 4 degrees in a “low emissions” scenario to almost 15 degrees in a “high emissions” scenario.
The low emission scenario would change Toksook averages to 21 degrees in December, 14 degrees in January, and 19 degrees in December. That’s still significantly colder than in Anchorage, the state’s largest city, which posts December-February means of 24.8, 23.1 and 26.6.
The worst-case scenario could, however, significantly change temperatures in Toksook Bay with the average rising to 32 in December, 25 in January and 30 in February. Thus if the worst-case scenario were to come to pass, the temperatures in Toksook Bay some 80 years from now could be near what the Alaska Climate Center reports as the norms for Seward today: 33.6, 31.8 and 33.4.
Seward still has snow and winter, and the IPCC isn’t talking about this worst-case scenario happing in a decade – if it happens – but in eight decades.
Hype breeds skepticism
The reporting in the NPR story can only be described as hype. When reporters go looking for quotes from average citizens – instead of consulting records or talking to professionals – that’s usually what they are after.
Always can be found someone who remembers a winter colder or warmer, wetter or drier, with less snow or with more snow. Memories are highly fallible even when people aren’t telling a reporter what they think the reporter wants to hear, or being led to the reaction the reporters desires.
NPR wanted a global warming story linked to the census, and it got one. It could simply have been an accident. The past couple winters in Alaska have been unusually warm, complicating travel on ice roads or by snowmachine in rural areas as NPR observes.
The problem is that though Alaska this year had an exceptionally warm fall, the winter swung the other way. It’s a cold one. Reporting that a cold one is a warm one is the sort of thing that breeds public distrust of the media.
It is an especially big problem when it comes to reporting on global warming.
“Compared with a decade ago, more Americans today say protecting the environment and dealing with global climate change should be top priorities for the president and Congress,” the PEW Research Center reported in April.
With almost 60 percent of those polled also saying they thought climate change was affecting their community but only 44 percent worried about it, it’s hard not to wonder if some people – especially those in the northern tier states – actually like the warming. (They would, of course, be subject to stoning for actually admitting this.)
Given a majority (56 percent) of Americans opposed to the country taking climate actions, it is also hard to avoid wondering if the media’s climate-change agenda isn’t doing more harm than good. When people are freezing their butts off in Alaska while reading about how there are no ice roads for the census takers, it might be hard for them to avoid becoming skeptical of climate-changing reporting at the least and possibly global warming in general.
But the fact is the air surrounding the third-rock from the sun is warming. And the probability is high that humans, who’ve pulled a lot of stored carbon out of the ground and released it into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide – a so-called greenhouse gas – are wholly or partially responsible.
Where things get sticky is in trying to figure out how high the temperature goes and what the consequences. Maybe it would be better to just be honest with people about these things than to try to lead them to conclusions by stirring a moral panic.