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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.

We lift off and fly north, eventually moving from the glacial white to the greened-out Kennicott Valley. “I suppose this is how the Bagley Icefield will eventually look, after all the ice is gone,” Welty says as he throttles back for our approach to McCarthy.

“We have an Endangered Species Act, but there’s no Endangered Glaciers Act,” Mike Loso had told me earlier. “It’s not part of the common vernacular to mourn the loss of snowfields, and as a scientist, there aren’t a lot of venues to talk about it. But there’s something terrifically sad about all that awe and grandeur going away without anyone acknowledging we’re destroying it.”

After we land, I tell Welty that it was probably the most spectacular flight I’ve ever taken. That’s true–but it’s also true that it left me depressed.

According to Welty, we consumed 36 gallons of fuel on our 2 1/2-hour flight. That’s nothing compared to what the jet engines burned through during my flights between my home in Vermont and the parks in Alaska and Florida. According to carbon calculators (at
and, my share of CO2 emissions from those commercial flights totaled more than 1.6 tons. Add in 1,800 miles of car travel and various airport shuttles, and I moved more Jurassic-era carbon from deep underground to the atmosphere than the average Malawian would in 25 years.

Certainly the editors and I would like to believe that this story’s public service outweighs the negative effects of the carbon emitted during its production. (And they’ve purchased carbon offsets to counterbalance the emissions produced in making this story.) But still, that’s a lot of carbon.

On our fourth day in the Wrangells, Millen and I break camp early, skip coffee, and set out on our final approach to Hidden Creek Lake, via what we expect will be an all-day crossing of the Kennicott Glacier. Walking parallel to the flow of the ice is a breeze, but on the furrowed Kennicott highway, we are crosstown traffic. That means slow going as we skirt cliffs and crevasses and climb up and down ice hills and across strips of steep and rocky moraine, strapping on and taking off our crampons dozens of times. We walk through a moonscape of brown-gray rock and under enormous ice cliffs shaped as gracefully as waves and rising 150 feet into the sky. The moods change by the minute, as lines of clouds pass in front of the sun. By midafternoon, 16,390-foot Mt. Blackburn, to our north, is lost in a snowstorm.

Late in the day, just as the first raindrops are hitting our jackets, we crest a moraine and pause for our first look at Hidden Creek Lake. At the far end of Hidden Valley, a creek emerges from the end of an alpine glacier. But instead of flowing into the lake, the creek meanders across a plain of gray mud, then vanishes under the Kennicott Glacier. Hidden Creek Lake is gone.
Unlike Iceberg Lake, Hidden Creek Lake has drained in summer for at least the last century. But we are here in early spring. This year is only the second in anyone’s memory that winter temperatures have warmed enough to liquefy the ice dam, sending the lake’s water cascading down the Kennicott River in an event known as a jökulhlaup, or outburst flood.

IN HIS 1967 CLASSIC ON THE ORIGINS of America’s environmental movement, Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash argues that the notion of undeveloped wilderness as a treasure worth saving is uniquely American. Now, that idea is paying unexpected dividends: Parks are helping us appreciate how changes in climate affect our natural world. Within them, we see the warnings of drastic changes ahead. But the warming climate is also creating a new tension between lines that have been drawn on maps, and reality. Land managers and others are beginning to ask what to do when species and entire ecosystems for which a park has been created to protect are no longer there. And what happens when protected areas are no longer suitable for the species they were designed to protect?

As our climate changes, organisms and ecosystems will likely shift their ranges north, inland, and uphill. Some parks, such as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, may offer corridors or stepping-stones that allow population of plants and animals to shift their ranges northward as the climate warms. Large and remote parks such as Wrangell-St. Elias contain enough sufficiently intact and diverse ecosystems that they provide refuge for plants and animals struggling to adapt. “A place like this,” says Wrangell-St. Elias superintendent Meg Jensen, “is so big and unfragmented, with so many elevation gradients, so many eco-zones and transition zones, that we can protect entire animal and plant communities better here than you can in smaller parks at lower latitudes.”
That could buy us time, say scientists, while we work to get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions and rein in climate change. But climatologists estimate that we have only about a decade to do that, before the pace of melting in polar regions becomes unstoppable.

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