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Three Reasons the Arctic is Changing and Why You Should Care

Q | Chris Field: The Arctic is the part of the world that’s seen the most profound warming. How do you see climate change in the Arctic and the issues it brings into focus?

A | Fran Ulmer: There are three reasons you should be interested in and care about how fast the Arctic is changing.

The Arctic acts kind of like an air conditioner for the planet. When the Arctic is white with a lot of sea ice and snow on land, it is reflecting back into space a lot of energy from the sun. And if it’s not white, if we’ve lost a lot of sea ice—and we’ve lost about 50% of the sea ice in the summer sea ice minimums—instead that dark ocean is absorbing energy which warms the ocean, which melts more ice, which warms the planet. So less ice, less snow, a darker Arctic instead of a whiter Arctic, is not only warming the Arctic, it’s contributing one-third to one-half of the global temperature rise.

Thinking about ice sheets and glacier ice, we know that Greenland is losing mass. What happens to it? To the extent that it contributes to sea level rise, that matters to you a whole lot. The extent to which a warmer Arctic is contributing to global weather changes that will continue to profoundly affect all of us regardless of where we live.

So why should you care? I’ll just sum it up by saying we think of polar bears, and walrus, and ring seals as being ice-dependent species. I just want you to walk out of here this afternoon realizing that you and I are part of an ice-dependent species.

Q | Field: What are the aspects of the opening Arctic ocean from rising temperatures that keep you up at night?

A  | Ulmer: The opening of the ocean is most likely to be of interest to countries that could benefit from it. A very large portion of the Arctic is Russian territory and it happens to be where Russia has about 80% of its oil and gas resources.  Not surprisingly, Russia is interested not just in oil and gas development in the Arctic but also increasing shipping along its northern route because it’s a way potentially of getting their oil and gas to market. So, what keeps me up at night is increased shipping through the Bering Strait without ports of refuge, inadequate ice-breaking and response vessels. On the U.S. side we have two aging ice-breakers, Russia has 40 – and we are not ready – either the U.S. nor the world – to really accommodate the increased activity that may come as a result of the increased access.

Q | Field: How did you become involved in public service, specifically becoming Mayor of Juneau, Alaska?

A | Ulmer: I had been serving on the planning and zoning commission and I had been asked if I would lead the process for Juneau’s revision of its comprehensive plan. One of the first things you do is you hold community meetings. I had done dozens of those community meetings and so I had a pretty good idea of what people wanted by way of the next direction for the city. So, I ran on that, and I won.

Local government is where the rubber really meets the road. It’s where communities can really make things happen and it’s where people engage in a way that’s very meaningful.

Q | Field: Do you have advice for people who are aspiring politicians?

A | Ulmer: People want an authentic candidate. They want to vote for, work for, volunteer for, contribute to someone who really has a vision of what they’re trying to accomplish, not just ‘I wanna be somebody, so I’m running for office.’ They want to have the sense that you are running for office because you believe in something and you’re willing to work for that something.

For people who are thinking about running for office, and I hope some of you are, I would ask first these questions: Am I ready? Is my family and inner circle ready to take on this challenge with me? Are you willing to take on the criticism and the unfairness of a campaign?

And I would say in comparison to when I ran and served, the unfairness level has gone way up.

Q | Field: You’ve made a transition from elected office and administration to science. Why did you get involved with science?

A | Ulmer: When I was first elected to the legislature, I was 40 years old and trying to learn everything. One day a group of commercial fishermen came to my office and announced that they were there to educate me about the commercial fishing industry. They wanted to explain to me the difference between a gillnetter, a seiner, a troller, a longliner and explain to me how the management system worked: state management and federal management of waters. They wanted me to understand why it was important for me to be able to articulate support for funding the department of fish and game. I knew Juneau had a commercial fishing industry but I didn’t know a lot of the things that they told me. In their second visit they brought along a fisheries biologist from the University of Alaska to explain to me how the fisheries biologists did the job that they did to support the management which supported the commercial fisherman.

They tied it all together for me: the science, the research; the management; the policy; the legislation; how that rolled out in terms of who got to fish when; and how that effected the economics of the region and the community. And it kind of turned me on to this whole relationship between science and policy.

For more insights from Fran Ulmer, watch the video of her full conversation with Chris Field below. Read Q&As from past conversations on our Medium page.

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