America by Air: An Existential Threat in Alaska

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Gene McGill

Just when I think the series is coming to a close, we get an especially great email from a reader:

My work has taken me to Barrow, Alaska, on several occasions over the years. This photo was shot immediately after taking off from Wiley Post-Will Rogers Memorial Airport in Barrow. The west end of the runway ends close to the Chukchi Sea, and the view in this photo is looking southwest along that coast. Barrow is behind the aircraft, not visible in this view. The landing gear is not yet fully retracted and we are already turning toward Fairbanks, our next stop.

The most significant attribute of this photo is that it was taken on October 2, 2014, and there is no sea ice in sight.

Sea ice up to the shore protects the shore from erosion during storms. Of all the months of the year, October has warmed most above the historic normal in Barrow (pdf). The October departure from the normal between 1979 and 2012 was 7.2 degrees Celsius. Consequently, the sea freezes much later than it used to and this exposes Barrow to strong waves from autumn storms that severely erode the coastline.  

The town itself, along with many other smaller settlements in northern and western Alaska, are facing existential threats from these storms. Extensive dredge and fill operations are required to replace beach sand washed away by storms. Barrow is seeking funds for a seawall, estimated to cost between $200 million and $1 billion.

Update from another reader, who’s a total buzzkill for the series:

It is fitting that this existential threat is highlighted in a thread about people flying in airplanes, given that:

Flying, particularly on long-haul flights, is so highly emitting that it dwarfs everything else on an individual carbon budget. Many climate groups have calculated that in a sustainable world each person would have a carbon allowance of two to four tons of carbon emissions annually. Any single long-haul flight nearly “instantly uses that up,” said Christian Jardine, a senior researcher at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.


For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates about 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person.

Let’s see some photos taken from bicycles! Depending, of course, upon how the bicyclist is fueled: “. . . the Prius-driving vegan beats the meat-eating bicyclist by about half a ton in annual carbon impact.”