Charles Wohlforth
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Homer Tribune, July 21, 2004

Author sees fossil fuels as cause of global warming

By Steve Kadel

Homer Tribune

The amount of carbon dioxide in the air at Barrow has increased steadily and is a symptom of significant climate change, according to scientific measurements.

‘There’s only one reason it’s going up — we’re burning fossil fuels across the earth,” Charles Wohlforth said Friday during a lecture and slide show at Land’s End Resort.

Carbon dioxide has jumped from 330 parts per million in 1973 to a current level of 380 parts per million in the Arctic Ocean village, Wohlforth said. The Anchorage author said that, in turn, has led to warmer air temperatures, melting sea ice and rapid growth of shrubs across the North Slope.

“We know that carbon dioxide warms the environment,” he said. “Why would it not have an effect?”

Wohlforth’s recently released book, “The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change,” charts the issue from the perspective of arctic Natives with firsthand experience as well as scientists conducting computer-aided investigations.

Arctic Natives around the world have adapted well to climate change in the past, Wohlforth said, and he believes they can do so again. Barrow whalers, for example, are countering the larger waves caused by reduced sea ice and melting permafrost by using bigger boats.

While human residents of Barrow deal with problems such as erosion, warming weather also affects arctic animals, Wohlforth said. He mentioned a study of the Canadian arctic, where polar bears — which can only feed when on ice — are becoming thinner and have higher mortality rates among cubs.

“The problem is, there are still only a few scientists studying the effects of climate change on wildlife,” Wohlforth said.

An audience member asked the author what he would do to solve global warming. Wohlforth’s quick response drew applause.

“I’d immediately switch our fossil fuels industry to a hydrogen industry,” he said. “Move to that hydrogen economy as fast as possible. The people who are now making money from oil could make even more.”

Wohlforth said it is heartening that many people throughout the world are starting to deal with the problem of climate change, working to reverse it in ways they can manage.

“Unfortunately, we’re behind in the U.S.,” he said.

Meanwhile, Wohlforth’s appearance in Homer coincided with release of a study in the journal “Science” indicating oceans have absorbed almost half of the carbon dioxide released by industrial activity during the past 200 years. The article said changes in the ocean chemistry could be a long-term threat to corals and shell-forming marine life.

That’s the conclusion of research by oceanographer Christopher Sabine of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and his colleagues. Sabine suggests the oceans have capacity to take on more carbon dioxide for thousands of years, but marine life will be impacted much more quickly.

A companion article by marine chemist Richard Freeley of NOAA’s Seattle-based Pacific Marine Environment Laboratory also appeared in the journal. His research indicates the buildup of carbon dioxide in oceans, and its resulting decrease in the water’s alkalinity, “can potentially have significant impacts on the biological systems in the oceans in ways we are only beginning to understand,” according to the article.

Mollusks, corals and single-celled creatures that depend upon seawater for developing their shells are particularly at risk, Freeley said.