Climate in Flux/Warming to Climate Change; Weather; Scientific American Presents; by Brown; 6 Page(s)
For geophysicist Gunter Weller, getting to the office is a real trip. On weekday mornings around 7 A.M., Weller gingerly backs his black Toyota SUV down the driveway and into the icy fog that shrouds Fairbanks. His car creeps, antlike, for three miles to the University of Alaska. It's not the morning darkness-or even the icy air-that puts Weller on guard. Rather it's the sudden lurches and gaping cracks that emerge from nowhere in the road-scars of the permafrost melting below the ground.
Record warm temperatures are gnawing away at the masses of ice that lie beneath Alaska and other Arctic areas-and, in the process, buckling roads, tilting trees and threatening homes. Eventually much of the boreal forests that color Alaska could dissolve into wetlands, which could, in turn, become grassland. This ecosystem makeover is a dramatic show of climate change-and perhaps a distressing harbinger of things to come. "We are beginning to see the greenhouse effect-and it's not pretty," notes Weller, director of the university's Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research.