Global warming in spotlight as Obama visits Alaska

US President Barack Obama surveys the retreating Bear Glacier, centre, from Resurrection Bay. Picture: AP
US President Barack Obama surveys the retreating Bear Glacier, centre, from Resurrection Bay. Picture: AP
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BARACK Obama stared down a melting glacier in Alaska on Tuesday in a dramatic use of his status as US president to sound the alarm on climate change.

From a distance, Exit Glacier appears to be a river of white and blue flowing down through the mountains towards lower terrain. In fact, the two-mile long slab of solid ice has been retreating at a faster and faster pace in recent years – more than 800ft since 2008, satellite tracking shows.

“This is as good a signpost of what we’re dealing with when it comes to climate change as just about anything,” Mr Obama said with the glacier as his backdrop.

Mr Obama trekked to the glacier with photographers in tow in a choreographed excursion to call attention to the ways human activity is degrading natural wonders. The visit to Kenai Fjords National Park, where the glacier sits, was the climax of Mr Obama’s three-day tour of Alaska, and his most concerted campaign yet on climate change.

The president, dressed for the elements in a rugged coat and sunglasses, observed how signposts along the trek recorded where the glacier once stood and now only dry land remains.

“We want to make sure our grandkids can see this,” he said, describing the glacier as “spectacular”.

In another photo-op, Mr Obama stood on the bow of a tour boat in Resurrection Bay in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, staring out at the serene waters and lush mountain vistas. Photographers and reporters were brought alongside him in a separate boat to capture the moment.

Yesterday, the president was set to see indigenous people living in conditions unimaginable to most Americans as he became the first White House incumbent to visit Alaska’s Arctic. His visit is meant to showcase the havoc human-influenced climate change is wreaking on a delicate landscape. It will also shine a rare spotlight on the plight of indigenous people, who are witnessing entire villages sinking into the ground as permafrost thaws, sea ice melts and temperatures climb.

One village has even voted to move inland to more solid land, even though that threatens villagers traditional way of life.

Alaskan peoples have joined the president in sounding the alarm on climate change. Yet the obstacles they confront daily in rural Alaska extend far deeper, raising questions about whether the federal government has done enough to help some of the most destitute US citizens. In large swathes of rural Alaska, indigenous people empty waste-filled buckets into nearby sewage lagoons.

“The vast majority of Americans have no idea there are dozens of communities in Alaska that live like this,” Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska said in an interview.

“It’s unacceptable, and we need to do more to fix it.”