WASHINGTON - The disastrous consequences of global warming forecast by some scientists are already in evidence in Alaska, where rising sea levels may force the relocation of native villages and towns, Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska told a Senate committee on Tuesday.
"We face the problem of moving native villages that have been located along the Arctic and West coast of Alaska for centuries because they are slowly but surely being inundated by seawater," the Republican lawmaker told five top climate scientists testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee.
One of the towns Stevens said will have to be relocated is Barrow, Alaska, on Point Barrow, the northern-most city in the United States with about 4,500 residents, most of them Inupiat Eskimos.
Alaskans have reported that Arctic ice is 8 inches thinner in some places this year than it was last year, Stevens said. The Northwest Passage appears likely to be ice-free this summer for the third year in a row - an unheard-of occurrence, he noted.
"This is a creeping disaster," Stevens said. "We're not even sure it's covered by existing (federal) disaster loans."
Stevens said he will lead a delegation of senators to Alaska later this month to observe the effects of climate change firsthand.
Some scientists have predicted that the effects of global warming will be amplified and first noticed in the polar regions.
The 10 warmest years in meteorological record-keeping have all occurred since 1983, with eight of the years occurring since 1990.
Sea levels worldwide have risen an average of 9 inches in the last century. In a series of three reports issued earlier this year, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that sea levels will rise another 3.5 to 34.6 inches by 2100 due to warmer water temperatures and melting ice.
Last June, Barrow experienced its first-ever thunderstorm. Thunderstorms usually occur in warmer climates and are extremely rare along the Arctic coast. Even in midsummer, about half the nights in Barrow dip below freezing.
Subsistence hunting remains the primary way of life on Point Barrow, but Inupiat hunters report that cellars dug into permafrost to store caribou and whale meat are beginning to thaw. Local officials worry that they may eventually have to provide refrigerated storage facilities for the caribou and marine mammals harvested by residents.
Other Alaskan natives, including Inuit fishermen, have reported that with less ice and warmer water they are seeing a change in the species of fish and ocean mammals in the region.
The U.N. climate reports, which more than 700 of the world's leading scientists participated in producing, concluded that there is a scientific consensus that global temperatures are increasing, that human activities are an important cause of climate change, and that the potential consequences may be catastrophic.
Testifying before the committee, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., dismissed the U.N. reports, saying their summaries were written by politically motivated environmentalists.
Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, also testifying before the committee, said that "premature government action to cut energy use could cool the economy faster than it cools the climate."
Greater government effort is needed to improve the computer modeling upon which climate-change scenarios are constructed, Craig said.
But Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the committee, said Stevens' description of the effects of climate change in Alaska are "an argument for doing more than increasing our (computer) modeling capabilities."
Craig and Hagel are among a group of GOP senators who persuaded President Bush in March to reverse his campaign pledge to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, a major source of greenhouse gas, and to withdraw the United States from the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty that sets reduction goals in carbon dioxide emissions for industrial nations.