Alaska’s Pure Wildness is on Fire

August 17 Willow Fire, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Daily News-Miner

“To the lover of pure wildness, Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world.”—John Muir

John Muir was intrigued by the new science of glaciology and believed it had carved his beloved Yosemite Valley long ago. In the late 1880s and ‘90s, he came to Glacier Bay and my hometown of Haines, Alaska, to study glaciers and prove his theory.

He was fascinated with the ice-rivers carving out the planetary landscape, and in his book, Travel in Alaska, published after his death in 1914, he describes hopping deep chasms and trickling streams caused by melting ice around Haines and in Glacier Bay.

I visited Glacier Bay in 2000. At that time the tidewater glacier named after Muir was receding. Today it has retreated 30 miles into the mountains since Muir’s visit and the valley that was once ice is now reached by boat via the Muir Inlet.

Glaciers in Alaska are melting 100 times faster than previously thought. A recent study published in Science on tidewater glaciers took into account that melting of the glaciers beneath warming water is faster than the ice above the water level. The “submarine melt” is causing them to dissolve at an accelerated rate.

Muir would be saddened to see the glaciers he described as dazzling crystal palaces dissolved into muddy, fallen marble cakes.

Glaciers provide air-conditioning for the planet. Record-shattering 90-degree heat in Anchorage is creating hazardous conditions. Late season wildfires during July destroyed homes, forced evacuations, closed roads and schools, and poured dangerous levels of smoke into the state’s most populous region. During the ongoing fire season more than 2.5 million acres have burned. Six hundred fifty-nine fires have already burned more than all of the California fires during 2018. (1.8 million acres burned in the Camp, Woolsey, and Carr fires combined.) The fires continue to rage out of control at this writing.

These fires exacerbate climate warming by releasing millions of tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. In addition to the carbon emitted from the burning trees and foliage during a wildfire, carbon stored within the soil and below the ground can be released. One of the reasons the fires are so horrific and uncontrollable is the inaccessible terrain. However, the warming of the planet has melted the perma-frost, a frozen layer of plant life that when dried is highly combustible. The thawing of the perma-frost also allows methane gas to be released which adds more pollutants to the already over-saturated atmosphere.

The Arctic is warming 2.4 times faster than the global average. The rate of summer ice loss in Denali National Park outside Anchorage is 60 times greater than in pre-industrial times.

Some of this is due to natural temperature fluctuation, but rising greenhouse gas levels are responsible for most of the sea ice decrease. The lack of sea ice is bringing Polar bears to the brink of extinction. They are unable to hunt on the dissolving ice blanket and are literally starving to death. The rising sea level from the melting flows is forcing the Native People in the far north to re-locate their villages.

Another sad impact of the warming of Alaska, beyond the points already expressed and the discomfort to humans who are used to temperatures from 65-75 degrees in summer, is the warming of interior waters. Salmon have been dying, suffocating as water temperatures climb and less-dissolved oxygen remains in the water. The spawning fish simply don’t have the strength to swim upstream and are dying with sacs of eggs in their bellies.

Warmer temperatures allow insects and pests to multiply faster. Hungry moths have flourished, destroying forests and crushing cycles of berry growth. When I rafted the Tatshenshini River from the Yukon to the Gulf of Alaska in 2006, miles of gray swaths of forests destroyed by beetles were visible. Beetles are able to enjoy two birth cycles a year in the warmer climate.

Rick Brown, an outdoor guide who has taken tourists to the Exit Glacier outside of Seward since 2003, is alarmed by the changes he is witnessing. The glacier used to retreat 150 feet per year, now it is 10-15 feet per day! What took 100 years is taking months. The Exit Glacier is a slushy mess. Its crevices, once a turquoise wonder, are falling in on themselves.

Brown is concerned how climate change is going to work for his grandchildren and says, “If you can’t see what is happening here, you are blind.”

What would our world be like if our elected officials and the general population had not turned a blind eye on Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth? Some scientists believe we have reached the tipping point of climate change and that nothing we do now can stop the massive snowball of change crashing down upon us. Maybe a meteor will strike and spin us into another ice-age, but one thing for certain is that the effects of climate change are undeniably upon us.

 

RESOURCES

  • Washington Post: “In Alaska, climate change is showing increasing signs of disrupting everyday life.”
  • Washington Post: “Alaska’s sweltering summer is basically off the charts.”
  • National Geographic: “Alaska glaciers melting 100 times faster than previously thought.”
  • Cognoscenti: “It’s 90 Degrees in Anchorage. John Muir’s Beloved Alaska is Melting.”
  • Union of Concerned Scientists: “What do Alaska Wildfires Mean for Global Climate Change?”

 

Linda Ballou
Linda Ballou

Adventure travel writer, Linda Ballou, shares travel essays in her book, “Lost Angel Walkabout-One Traveler’s Tales,” and “32 Day Trips along the California Coast” in Lost Angel in Paradise on her site www.LostAngelAdventures.com.

1 Comment
  1. Well written Linda, worrying times! I have been reading everything posted about the summer fires in Alaska, no one is aware here in Europe. We are getting floods and high temperatures which people are not prepared for. The hurricanes and major storms worldwide look set to continue. Keep up your good work,
    shall share it all.

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