This week President Obama gave to the tallest peak in North America the name by which it was long known to Alaska natives: Denali. Obama officially renamed the former Mount McKinley as he toured Alaska to draw attention to the urgency of climate change. Credit: NPS Photo/Daniel A. Leifheit, CC BY 2.0

In a visit to Alaska this week, U.S. president Barack Obama declared, “Human activity is disrupting the climate, in many ways faster than we previously thought. The science is stark. It is sharpening. It proves that this once-distant threat is now very much in the present.”

“We will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair.”

Much of Alaska lies within the Arctic, where scientists have predicted and confirmed that global warming is having a more rapid and dramatic impact than at lower latitudes so far.

Obama made his remarks Monday night to foreign ministers of Arctic nations and other attendees of the U.S. State Department-funded GLACIER (Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience) conference in Anchorage, Alaska.

The president cautioned, “If we were to abandon our course of action, if we stop trying to build a clean-energy economy and reduce carbon pollution, if we do nothing to keep the glaciers from melting faster and oceans from rising faster and forests from burning faster and storms from growing stronger, we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair.”

Glacier Loss Study

As evidence of glacier loss, Obama cited a recently published paper that states that Alaska’s glaciers shed 75 gigatons of ice per year—adding enough water to the oceans to cover Alaska with a foot-thick layer of water every 7 years.

“As a scientist, I was really impressed with how well the science came across” in the speech, Chris Larsen, a research associate professor with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks told Eos. Larsen, who is lead author of the paper that Obama cited, watched the speech from home. “I don’t think he over-stretched anything either,” Larsen added.

Drilling Controversy

Alaska’s glaciers add enough water to the oceans to cover the state with a foot-thick layer of water every 7 years.

Not everyone applauded Obama’s environmentalism. Protesters outside the conference labeled Obama a hypocrite for allowing Shell Oil Company to begin drilling for oil off the coast of Alaska. However, many of Alaska’s native populations reportedly view the drilling as an economic opportunity—as long as resource development is done responsibly and in a way in which native populations benefit.

Clean Power

The president’s Alaska address comes 1 month after he announced the Clean Power Plan, which sets standards to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 32% by 2030. The White House also yesterday announced accelerated plans to acquire new icebreaker vessels to aid activities in the Arctic such as shipping, scientific research, and search-and-rescue missions.

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2015), Obama uses Alaska tour to focus on climate change, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO035053. Published on 2 September 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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