Taking notes: Climate change on the Kenai

By Carey Restino

Homer Tribune

Alaska is changing, and it’s not just in places to the north where permafrost is melting and village shorelines are eroding into the sea. On the Kenai Peninsula, longtime ecologist and instructor Ed Berg has been watching the changes for decades. Wetlands are shrinking. Trees are growing where they haven’t before. And the spruce bark beetle, which thrives during successive warm summers, changed the face of the Kenai Peninsula dramatically.

These and more will be the topic of a global climate change class Berg is teaching starting in October at Kenai Peninsula College.

Berg said that the class, which he has taught for a number of years, is popular with teachers, environmental educators and those who have to talk to the public about climate change.

There’s a lot of information and misinformation out there, Berg said, and knowing how to talk to people about the science of what is happening to the environment of Alaska is helpful.

“In order to discuss this with people, you need to know as much about the subject as you can,” Berg said. “People read these things on the Internet and it may sound plausible. So you might need to know more about it in order to discuss it intelligently.”

There is no question, Berg said, that the climate of Alaska and the world is changing. The only real question is why is it changing — whether from manmade factors, natural phenomena, or both.

“It’s certainly been in the news a lot in the last few years,” Berg said. “Climate change skeptics have gotten more and more traction and I find their arguments very interesting to look at and spend a fair amount of time in the class discussing them.”

Many of the resulting conditions from a warming planet are now in motion in Alaska, like ocean acidification, which Berg notes is having serious consequences for the fisheries in the state and will likely continue to do so as the chemistry of the oceans continue to change.

“Regardless of who you think is to blame, the oceans are getting more acidic,” Berg said.

Another major change visible on the Kenai Peninsula is one that Berg studied extensively during his years as an ecologist from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The spruce bark beetle epidemic of the 1990s changed the forests of the Kenai Peninsula dramatically, and Berg and his colleagues studied those shifts extensively. One of their studies determined that the beetles thrive when the average summer temperature is greater than 51 degrees. Get a few of those summers in a row and the beetle epidemic gets extreme, as it did in recent decades around the peninsula.

“That’s kind of the threshold,” Berg said. “If you get two summers like that, you start seeing a lot of red-needled trees.”

Other topics covered in the climate change class include the rising tree line and peatland history, something Berg has been studying in recent years.

“It’s a less-visible thing until you get out and start poking around in them and digging holes,” he said. “There are woody plants and spruce trees. Since 1970, the bogs have been drying at a much faster rate and there are tremendous shrub invasions.”

Berg said one term you won’t hear in the class is “global warming.” The trends of climate change are much more complex than that, involving weather patterns that influence not only the changing temperature but also the amount of precipitation in areas of Alaska like the Kenai Peninsula.

“It’s an interesting topic in general, but Alaska is very much on the front line of climate change and we certainly see the effects of it here on the Kenai Peninsula,” he said.

Deadline for enrollment is Friday, and the first class starts Monday.

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