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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.

One night, we pitch our tent on a cliff next to a waterfall, in a place that could contend for a page in a coffee-table book about the world’s best campsites. Millen and I cook a huge dinner and gobble it down, then pour a little rum and sit on the ledge, taking in a wraparound view of icefalls, fluted glaciers, soaring minarets, and boulder-strewn cirques.
“This is some big-*** country, isn’t it?” Millen says.

Four days earlier, just after arriving in Alaska, I went for a drive with Susan Harvey, sister of a friend in Vermont. Though she lives in suburban Anchorage, Harvey takes full advantage of her subsistence hunting and fishing rights. Her family shoots and butchers its own moose and caribou, catches and smokes its own salmon, and harvest crabs, shrimp, and scallops off the ocean floor. As we drove past scores of dip-netting fishermen along the shore of Turnagain Arm, Susan told me that she, too, has seen the changes. Avalanche chutes above the road that once held snow until July are bare in May. “And four years in a row, they’ve had to move the Iditarod north. There hasn’t been enough snow.”

The chance to see glaciers is one of the key reasons people visit the state. Wrangell-St. Elias would be the best place in Alaska to view them, but the park’s off-the-beaten-path location and lack of facilities make it attractive primarily to self-sufficient backpackers. To satisfy the appetites of cruise ship passengers and car tourists, the Forest Service built a visitor center in 1986 at the foot of the Portage Glacier in Chugach National Forest, just off the well-traveled highway that runs between Anchorage and the cruise ship port of Seward. Yet today, you can no longer see the glacier from the visitor center; it has retreated behind a mountainside more than a mile away.

Not eager to kiss a revenue stream goodbye, a park concessionaire launched a tour-boat service to bring visitors out to the glacier via the lake that has replaced it. Susan and I park and walk toward the dock, where a docent named Annette Jenkins greets us with an apologetic smile. “Sorry,” Jenkins says. “You just missed the last boat.”

Jenkins tells us that she grew up in Anchorage and often traveled down to visit the Portage Glacier as a child. This spring, when she got her job at the glacier, “It took me two weeks to realize that I was working at the place I used to go to as a kid. I didn’t recognize it. I’m like, ‘Ha ha ha, this puny thing isn’t Portage Glacier. But OK, if you want to tell people it is, fine.'”

Russ Reno, the site manager, overhears us and walks over. “I wouldn’t call it puny,” he says, sounding wounded. “There’s still a lot of ice back there. You just can’t see it from here.”

On our way back to Anchorage, Susan and I pull over to watch a tidal bore surge up Turnagain Arm. Reno, too, had stopped to watch the spectacle, and as we stand at the rail he asks me what my story is about. I tell him I’m reporting on global warming and its effect on national parks.

“You couldn’t tell me we had global warming this past winter,” he says. “It was cold.”

The fickleness of public attitudes is a big challenge, says Deborah Williams, president of Alaska Conservation Solutions. “Public opinion here peaked in 2005, after two years of really hot summers and bad forest fires. That year, the smoke was so bad in Anchorage I had to bring my mother to the emergency room. Now it’s not as hot, and it seems less palpable and less urgent. People seem to be getting apathetic again.”

That’s a problem, because if Alaska stands out as one of the early victims of climate change, it also stands out for its contribution to the problem–and not just because the state is a major oil producer. In this sparsely populated region, residents routinely drive or fly long distances. Consequently, Alaskans rank first in the country in per-capita transportation emissions, with the average Alaskan’s carbon dioxide output some six times the average New Yorker’s.

Southern Florida has experienced sobering increases in temperatures, too, as well as a series of disastrous hurricanes in 2004 and 2005. “But look at last winter,” argues Brad Hawn, a kayaker I met in the Everglades. “I was starting to believe in global warming a couple of years ago. But last winter was the coldest we’ve had in years, and there were no hurricanes. I think it’s just natural cycles.”

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