Dewey treks to Arctic Circle to witness environmental trends

Jan 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Campus News, Issue, January 29, 2009, November 13, 2008, October 30, 2008

Ken Dewey has a new passion.

Storm chasing is out. Climate change is in.

After building a career on pursuing storms and snapping severe weather photos, the School of Natural Resources professor is exploring deeper into the environment to see if the global climate is truly shifting.

“This is not a direction I anticipated. I came here to see storms,” Dewey said. “Honestly, I’m almost burned out from storm chasing and more fascinated by this.

“How can you not be fascinated by the controversy and debate that stems from climate change?”

Not one to do things half way – you wouldn’t expect less from a guy with a history of chasing tornadoes for fun – Dewey spent five weeks of the summer driving through Canada, Alaska and the Arctic Circle observing climate change patterns first-hand.

Ken Dewey
Ken Dewey standing on a boat with the Columbia glacier in the background.

He trekked alongside oil pipelines built to withstand melting permafrost. Cruised over expanses of frozen water on “roads” made infamous on the History Channel show “Ice Road Truckers.” And rubbed elbows with tribal elders meeting in the Northwest Territories to discuss (as luck would have it) the environment.

The 10,000-mile journey is helping provide the basis for Dewey to present facts on climate change through Speaker’s Bureau presentations, the new course “Climate in Crisis?,” online and through any other media he chooses to navigate.

“What I’m not trying to do is politicize this topic – that’s already being done,” Dewey said. “What I’m doing is just getting the information out there. I’m not Al Gore, but climate change is really happening and we all need to know about it.”

Venturing forth with his wife, Dewey started his Arctic tour in the middle of June, returning in his SUV (which, in an ironic twist, was battered on the way home by hail along the Canadian border) in the fourth week of July. He funded much of the journey out of his own pocket, other funds were provided by the School of Natural Resources.

“My goal was to collect not only data, but visual observations,” Dewey said. “It’s important to be able to show people that change is occurring.”

The economy was making a solid impact at the time, as high gas prices kept travelers home, causing tourist-based businesses to close.

Among his first climate-linked observations came through temporary road closures caused by melting permafrost.

“As you get farther north, into Alaska and the Northwest Territories, the paved roads are breaking up as the permafrost is heating and collapsing – it’s a sinkhole-like process,” said Dewey. “When we arrived in Alaska, we found that the roads were undulating, rolling up and down, because the surface was melting rapidly.”

As a crew worked on one roadway, Dewey got out of his vehicle and started to ask questions.

“The crew members said road repairs were double from normal due to permafrost melting,” said Dewey. “They said they simply could not keep up with the road repairs due to the impact of warming.”

The permafrost melt also is ushering other climate-related change, Dewey said.

As melting occurs, the “sinkholes” fill with water and create thaw lakes. The lakes in turn absorb and transfer heat from the sun (which does not set in the summer). As more of the sinkholes form, the increased water mass holds heat, making it more difficult for the area to cool.

While communities have started to deal with the melting, Dewey said oil companies are in good position as pipelines are built with safety measures designed to withstand change.

“They are built with these pads underneath that give proper support,” Dewey said. “And, all heat is transferred out of the pipeline and through exhaust vents four feet above the pipeline itself.

“If a sinkhole forms and the pipe starts to collapse, they shut it down, drain it off and shore it up. They showed me where that had been done. It was pretty amazing.”

As melting is a problem in some parts of the Arctic, other areas are drying out as less snow flies. Dewey met with parks officials and learned that tundra was drying out, resulting in a greater number of forest fires in the regions.

Then, there are the glaciers.

“Researchers from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks took us on a trip to see the Columbia glacier,” Dewey said. “They showed us how the glacier had retreated eight miles since the 1980s.”

As it turns out, glaciers are actually increasing and decreasing in the area. Snowfall is adding to the top of the glacier – but the bases are being undercut.

Dewey's SUV
ARCTIC TOUR – Ken Dewey toured Alaska and Canada in his SUV searching for signs of climate change.

“Warming is actually occurring on the bottom of the glacier,” Dewey said. “The bottom is actually melting faster than snow is being added to the top.”

Among Dewey’s final stops was a meeting with tribal elders in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada. Tribal members were discussing if they should approve the placement of an oil pipeline across their lands. The tribal members welcomed Dewey to the conversation.

“They kept saying how glad they were to have a white man with them,” Dewey said. “But, they welcomed me as an outsider and a scientist. I felt very comfortable with them.”

During the debate, Dewey was fascinated by how the tribal members approached the conversation.

“Their first goal was not the development of the pipeline, but how they could protect what the creator had given them, how they could protect the gift of natural resources for future generations,” Dewey said. “I thought that was very profound. It’s exactly how we should approach the climate change debate.”

Dewey has compiled the climate data and photos from the Arctic trip, placing the information online at He also offers a talk about climate change through the Speaker’s Bureau. For more information on Speaker’s Bureau, go to, send e-mail to or call 472-0088. Dewey can also be contacted directly at or 472-2908.

“I wanted to see for myself if climate change is really happening and if it’s as dramatic as some say,” Dewey said. “After experiencing it first-hand, I can say yes, climate change is happening in the Arctic at a rapid and profound rate.

“It’s something that we can no longer afford to ignore.”

— Story by Troy Fedderson,University Communications

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