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September 2007

The Impact of Climate Change on Florida’s Everglades, Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias

What do Florida's Everglades and Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias have in common? Both face uncertain futures as temperatures rise.

What do the Everglades and Wrangell-St. Elias–two iconic national parks at the far ends of North America–have in common? According to scientists, both face a grave future as temperatures rise. To see the impact up close, our reporter pushes deep into the backcountry, discovering landscapes both beautiful and threatened beyond his imagination.

In August 1999, British artist Hamish Fulton set out on a long hike through the mountains of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, in southeast Alaska. Fulton’s destination was Iceberg Lake, a crystalline body of glacier-dammed water in a remote valley above the Bagley Icefield.

Fulton had a week of rough backpacking behind him when he crested a low pass on a sunny morning and paused for his first look at the lake. On the near side of the valley, a creek emerged from an alpine glacier. But instead of flowing into a blue lake, the stream meandered across a plain of gray mud, then vanished into a field of dripping icebergs.
Iceberg Lake had disappeared.

Although many of Alaska’s glacier-dammed lakes drain occasionally, Iceberg Lake was so stable that local pilots, climbers, and rangers had considered it permanent. The news of Iceberg Lake’s demise soon made its way to Mike Loso, a geologist at Alaska Pacific University. Loso traveled to the scene to examine the lakebed’s sediment, which is set down in layers that coincide with annual cycles, similar to rings in a tree. What Loso found surprised him. “There was no evidence of the lake draining at any time during the last 1,500 years,” Loso says. “It appears that 20th-century warming is more intense, and accompanied by more extensive glacier retreat, than at any other time in the last 1,500 years.”

This is what we face. According to a report titled Climate Change and America’s National Parks, recently released by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), our wilderness is already being transformed by global warming. Across the nation, glaciers are melting, plants and animals are migrating or going extinct, and parks are facing rising tides that could submerge them in this century.

To see firsthand how the effects of global warming are likely to play out, I traveled to two parks that bookend North America. Wrangell-St. Elias is the park system’s best showcase for glacial landscapes, with more than half of its land area covered by ice. Everglades National Park is the nation’s largest subtropical wilderness, a bastion for rare and endangered species such as the American crocodile, Florida panther, and West Indian manatee. More than 3,700 miles apart, both parks are being stressed by the same forces.

It seemed like a plum assignment: a chance to explore the backcountry of two of America’s most spectacular wilderness areas. I had never set foot in Alaska, and I had never paddled deep into the Everglades. Yet I grew apprehensive as my departure drew near, knowing that the natural beauty I was about to witness might be more fleeting than anyone had ever imagined.

Eight years after Hamish Fulton’s hike, I set out on a five-day backpacking expedition to Hidden Creek Lake, another remote, glacier-dammed lake in Wrangell-St. Elias. My hiking partner is Jeremiah Millen, field representative with the NPCA. By the time Millen and I reach the end of one of only two gravel roads that penetrate the park, we’ve been watching the mountains of the region’s four major ranges–the Wrangells, the Chugach, the St. Elias, and the Alaska–getting higher and closer for half a day.

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