Winter in Alaska isn’t what it used to be. Just ask Mark Bertram.
Bertram, a wildlife biologist at the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge outside of Fairbanks, has been living in the state since 1986. To hear him tell it, the cold season there is getting warmer.
“Back in the ‘80s and through the early ‘90s especially, it was very common to have multi-week periods of very cold weather. I’m talking about from 40, to 50, to 60 below,” he says. Bertram recalls the winter of January 1989 when Galena set its all-time record low, which according to the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks was a stunning 70 below. These days, he says, “very rarely does it get down to 40 below.
Climate change in Alaska isn’t just anecdotal. According to recently released data from the National Weather Service, average temperatures last year at 14 of the agency’s monitoring stations in Alaska—from Annette down in the southeastern part of the state, to Barrow way up north—were the warmest ever recorded. In a report on the impacts of climate change in Alaska the EPA crunched the numbers, and found that Alaska is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the country.
For Tamra Kornfield, an Alaska native and program director at the Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, warmer temperatures means less snow. She describes the winters of 2015 and 2016 as the mildest she had ever experienced.
“It was hovering around 32 and would rarely freeze, which is a kind of comfortable temperature, but then you realize it comes hand-in-hand with not having any snow.” And no snow means no skiing, save on the limited trails that the association is able to maintain using artificial snow.
Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward is facing a similar existential crisis. Exit Glacier, which is a central feature of the park and a major draw for visitors, had been retreating since 1835 at a rate of 45 feet per year, according to park interpreter Laura Sturtz. As recently as the 2000s, visitors could go right up and touch it. But since 2012, that number has increased to an unprecedented 168 feet. “We’re seeing that our glaciers are not just losing length, they’re thinning and narrowing,” says Sturtz. “They’re losing ice from every side.”
Planning for this level of climatic shifts isn’t easy. Sturtz says that in 2005, and again in 2010, trails were extended in order to allow park visitors to stand next to the glacier. Now, she says, “it’s not really possible to do that again.”
For land managers in America’s largest state, climate model-based projections are a key part of long-term planning. But even the most reliable models can’t fully prepare them for what they’re up against.
“It’s difficult to project how this is going to impact habitats and wildlife populations because we’ve never been down this road before,” says Bertram. “But we can take our best guess.”
One probable consequence of climate change in Alaska is an increase in frequency and intensity of wildfires. “Preliminary assessments suggest the frequency, intensity, and area burned are increasing in the northern two million acres of [Denali National Park],” Dave Schriokauer, the sciences and resources team leader at Denali, writes in an email.
Aside from fires, Schriokauer says that the frequency of landslides, which periodically impact the park’s roads, is increasing. In addition, permafrost thaw, the melting of subterranean frost that once existed year-round, is causing issues on roads and trails such as the Savage River trail and Savage Alpine trail at Denali.
For Roger Robinson, a mountaineering ranger in Denali since 1980, climate change is a potentially deadly hazard. Glacial retreat is triggering more rockfall, and increasing the difficulty of several climbing routes in the park. In addition, Robinson says, “several climbs that we made back in the 1970s can no longer be safely done because the thin veneer of ice that covered the rock faces have disappeared.”
Robinson worries that the changing climate will eventually lead to deviations and a longer approach on the commonly-used West Buttress Route to Denali’s summit. “I think the easiest routes on Denali will become more challenging and dangerous,” he cautions.
In some ways, climate change could actually benefit Alaska’s tourism industry—at least in the short term. Good weather during the so-called shoulder seasons and more tolerable winters could spell an uptick in visitation, which park staff at Denali are already preparing for.
But even if tourism does increase, it’s unlikely to be a long-term trend. With Alaska’s iconic peaks and glaciers, Denali and Exit Glacier among them, suffering the ravages of the shifting climate, the central features that draw visitors to these parks may not exist in their current forms for much longer.
At Yukon Flats, Mark Bertram says that despite more frequent wildfires, the refuge is projected to maintain more of its current coniferous-dominant forest than other parts of interior Alaska. The biological term for this sort of area is a ‘refugium’, a place where an organism’s population can survive unfavorable conditions.
Whatever changes the future brings, Tamra Kornfield believes that Alaskans will continue to answer the call of the wild no matter how bad things get. “Anchorage and the rest of Alaska wants to be outside, and so they will adapt and do whatever they can to try to maintain an active lifestyle,” Kornfield says. “Even if it’s completely icy, they’ll go and get ice grips and still cut out into the mountains. It’s not as enjoyable, and it’s kind of scary sometimes, but everybody’s still trying to visit the outdoors.”