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Mayors Find Evidence of Global Warming in Alaska

by: Dan Joling    18 September 2006

SEWARD, Alaska -- Vanta Shafer says it used to be a shorter walk to see Exit Glacier 14 years ago when she was a mother entertaining her children and not the mayor of nearby Seward.

Since then, the glacier has retreated hundreds of feet, almost too far to walk to, Shafer said.

"I feel sad to come out here anymore," she said of the glacier's retreat. "Don't you think that's awfully fast?"

More than 30 U.S. mayors from 17 states had the chance to ponder that question Sunday and consider whether the glacier's retreat is linked to global warming during a three-day conference, "Strengthening Our Cities: Mayors Responding to Global Climate Change." The gathering will wrap up Monday after sessions on what communities can to do counter the effects of warming or adapt to them.

The sessions were sponsored by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, the municipality of Anchorage and the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Sunday was the day for demonstrating the effects of warming, which are more pronounced near the Earth's poles, according to researchers.

Mayors looked at forests of white spruce bedeviled by destructive beetles that mature in one year instead of two because of warmer weather. They heard of tree lines creeping farther up Alaska mountainsides and farther north above the Arctic Circle. They heard that global sea level is rising and a major reason is increasing temperature, which causes water to expand. And they heard that 30 of the 32 named glaciers fed by the 700-square mile Harding Ice Field, including Exit Glacier, are thinning and retreating.

Dennis Hession, mayor of Spokane, Wash., said it was one thing to see warming's effects in his own community and another to see it affect a whole ecosystem, as speakers indicated Sunday. In Spokane, winters have been warmer.

"That's all great for us," he said. "The question is, at what cost do we enjoy that?"

His trip to Alaska showed him his community needs to pay attention to effects elsewhere.

"There are real world impacts," he said. "There are direct impacts on people, businesses, cultures, that we just don't see, and are demonstrable."

Rocky Anderson, the outspoken mayor of Salt Lake City, said the issue grabbed him after he read a book by former Vice President Al Gore, "Earth in the Balance." He then became concerned by the lack of effective action to deal with the problem, he said, even as other issues, such as the elimination of ozone-depleting substances, were addressed.