Dozens of once crystal-clear streams and rivers in Arctic Alaska are now running bright orange and cloudy, and in some cases they are becoming more acidic. This otherwise undeveloped landscape now looks as if an industrial mine has been in operation for decades, and scientists want to know why…
The phenomenon is visually striking. “It seems like something’s been broken open or something’s been exposed in a way that has never been exposed before,” Roman Dial, a professor…at Alaska Pacific University said. “All the hardrock geologists who look at these pictures, they’re like, ‘Oh, that looks like acid mine waste.’” But it’s not mine waste. According to the researchers, the rusty coating on rocks and streambanks is coming from the land itself
The prevailing hypothesis is that climate warming is causing underlying permafrost to degrade. That releases sediments rich in iron, and when those sediments hit running water and open air, they oxidize and turn a deep rusty orange color. The oxidation of minerals in the soil may also be making the water more acidic. The research team is still early in the process of identifying the cause in order to better explain the consequences. “I think the pH issue”—the acidity of the water—“is truly alarming,” said Hewitt. While pH regulates many biotic and chemical processes in streams and rivers, the exact impacts on the intricate food webs that exist in these waterways are unknown. From fish to stream bed bugs and plant communities, the research team is unsure what changes may result.
That portion of Alaska’s economy that has marched along the All-American Highway of Economic Progress – regardless of environmental impact – already knows well how to deflect responsibility for death and destruction. And if they need guidance and help, there are beaucoup politicians of every stripe ready to run to their defense.