February 28, 2005

Baked Alaska

Filed under: Arctic, Climate History, Polar

The inexorable drumbeat of climate disaster stories goes on, but no one seems interested in checking the facts.

The most recent assault on common sense comes from Alaska. There, Republican senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski are now said to be favoring onerous climate change legislation sponsored by Arizona’s John McCain. McCain believes he can ride global warming all the way to the 2008 presidential nomination by grabbing the horde of green-leaning California and Pacific Coast delegates who will be off-limits to his southern competition, Bill Frist (Tennessee) and George Allen (Virginia), both of whom oppose McCain’s expensive, ineffective bill.

That’s right. McCain’s bill will do absolutely nothing measurable to curtail global warming for the foreseeable future. It’s nicknamed “Kyoto Lite” in Washington, because it is an imitation of the infamous Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

But Kyoto is itself useless. Even Al Gore’s scientists conceded that, over 50 years, with full participation by every nation involved, the change in global temperature Kyoto would cause would be a teeny thirteen-hundredths of a degree, an amount impossibly small to measure. Given that McCain’s staff surely knows that, the hidden agenda for his presidential strategy becomes obvious.

McCain’s bill went down 55-43 on Halloween 2003—a close margin. So the addition of Alaska’s two conservative republicans is ominously significant, and, as we say in academic circles, counterfactual.

For their part, Alaskans Stevens and Murkowski are largely concerned that the Inuit (old timers: That means “Eskimo”) culture is being damaged by warming. But Alaska has been peopled for at least 12,000 years. Within the last 12 millennia, there have been plenty of periods when it was warmer than today, and the Inuit culture flourished.

Apparently it was too much effort for the Alaska senators’ staffers to consult relevant articles in the refereed scientific literature. The most important is a landmark study, “Holocene [post ice-age] thermal maximum in the western Arctic,” published last year by 30 eminent scientists whose specialty is past climate. It appeared just last year in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

The article notes that Alaska averaged 3ºF warmer for 2,000 years, from 9,000 to 11,000 years ago. Concurrently, the first civilization radiated forward.

Another article on Alaskan climate history for the last 2000 years is worth a mention, this one published by Feng Sheng Hu in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Hu notes that there have been three similarly warm periods in Alaska, from A.D. 0 to 300, 850-1200, and 1800 to present. (Consider that humans had no influence on global temperature 200 years ago).

And what of the present? Brian Hartman and Gerd Wendler of the Alaska-taxpayer-funded Alaska Climate Research Center have written extensively on this subject. They are particularly interested in something called “The Great Pacific Climate Shift,” a sudden and dramatic warming that occurred in a one-year period around 1976.

Here’s what they have written:

When analyzing the total time period from 1951-2001, warming is observed, however the 25-year trend analyses before 1976 (1951-1975) and thereafter (1977-2001) both display cooling.

That’s right. The mean Alaskan temperature has been declining for the last quarter-century. All of the warming is determined by a mysterious, single-year “burp” in Pacific Ocean temperature.

Is that due to human activity? Search the scientific literature for a computer model of human influence on climate that says all our impact occurred at once, in a single year. You won’t find one reference.

It is a shame that Stevens’ and Murkowski’s staffers didn’t do this rudimentary research. Because, if they shift their votes on McCain’s global warming bill, the nation will be saddled with an expensive piece of legislation that will have no effect on the problem it purports to solve. It’s a double shame because the known behavior of Alaskan climate is not unusual by historical standards, and actually shows a net cooling in the last 25 years, the so-called era of human warming.


Hartmann, B., Wendler, G., On the significance of the 1976 Pacific climate shift in the climatology of Alaska. Journal of Climate, under review.

Hu, F.S., et al., 2001. Pronounced climatic variations in Alaska during the last two millennia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 10552-10556.

Kaufman, D.S., et al., 2004. Holocene thermal maximum in the western Arctic (0-180ºW). Quaternary Science Reviews, 23, 529-560.

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