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.
At road’s end, instead of the National Park Service’s usual barrage of signage, there is little except a footbridge, a satellite pay-phone booth, and several privately run parking lots. We grab our packs and walk across the footbridge, then down a mile-long trail that leads to the town of McCarthy.
A cluster of private land with a historic frontier-town main street, McCarthy makes few concessions to the fact that it is the hub of the country’s largest national park (Wrangell’s headquarters is 117 miles away, outside its own boundaries). An untethered rottweiler growls at us as we walk in; an ATV zooms by; a tourist couple asks about public restrooms (there are none); some locals sit on the saloon’s porch, nursing a BYO case of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
“It takes a while for McCarthy’s charm to kick in,” says Millen, who seems to know everyone in town. “But when it does, it’s the kind of place you don’t want to leave. I mean, I once walked out of the hardware store and saw a grizzly chasing a moose down Main Street.”
Millen and I begin our hike 5 miles north of McCarthy in Kennicott, site of one of the 20th century’s richest copper strikes. By 1938, the area’s most accessible veins were almost played out, and the last train departed, leaving it a ghost town of crumbling mills, general stores, houses, and hotels, which the NPS is now in the process of preserving.
Much of our hike will consist of bushwhacking and glacier-walking, but we leave town along a maintained trail that runs parallel to the Kennicott Glacier. Bathed in spring sunshine, Millen and I walk parallel to the glacier’s moraine, stepping to a soundtrack of collapsing ice walls and rocks tumbling from frozen cliffs.
In contrast to the Grand Canyon’s monumental stasis, the landscapes of the Wrangells are constantly being transformed, often on a grand scale. Glaciers advance and melt back, rivers change course, mountainsides tumble away. But about 150 years ago, as the Industrial Revolution began, the pace of melting picked up. When the mine was open, residents couldn’t see past the towering Kennicott Glacier. Now, the retreating glacier is 300 feet lower, and the town has unobscured views of Fireweed Mountain, across the valley.
“Just a few years ago, we’d be hiking on snowshoes in late May,” Millen says. On our way to McCarthy, we had stopped to visit his friend Mark Vail, a homesteader who lives off the grid. Vail told us that in the late 1980s, he counted 26 frost-free days one year. “Last year,” he says, “we had 104.”
Millen is the perfect backpacking partner–enthusiastic and backcountry-savvy, a powerful walker, an aficionado of bluegrass music and strong coffee. A native of Iowa, Millen jumped onto an Alaska-bound ferry in Bellingham, Washington in 2000, and has called himself an Alaskan ever since. Even in seven short years, Millen has seen the 49th state change, as it warms at more than twice the global average.
“Apart from scientists and native people, most Alaskans didn’t notice it until a few years ago,” says Millen. “Then we began having huge spruce bark beetle infestations, more forest fires, and invasive species coming from the south. When the permafrost started melting, we were suddenly spending more on road repairs, and people’s houses were tilting.”
During the record heat waves of the summers of 2004 and 2005, more than 10 million acres of forest burned. Off the coast, a swath of sea ice the size of Texas disappeared. Newspapers ran reports of drowning polar bears, native villages falling into the water, and declining salmon runs.
That night, we camp on a steep meadow blanketed with wispy white dryas, next to a gnarled alder that’s just leafing out. This campsite would have been covered by glacial ice a few dozen years ago. But the glaciers of southern Alaska and neighboring Canada are particularly sensitive to 20th-century warming; in fact, some have thinned more than 2,000 feet in 52 years. Although these glaciers comprise less than one percent of the earth’s glaciated area, scientists estimate that they are responsible for nearly half of the past decade’s worldwide sea-level rise attributable to melting ice.
Thirty-six lines of latitude south of the Kennicott Glacier, I reach over the side of my canoe and dip a finger into a tea-colored creek in Everglades National Park. Here, at the headwaters of Hells Bay, the water should run fresh in the final hours of an outgoing tide. But my portable salinity tester (my tongue) confirms that I am floating on very salty water.
Until recently, the eastern reaches of Hells Bay–a seemingly infinite series of ponds, islands, and narrow creeks at the headwaters of an immense mangrove swamp–were a transition zone. Here, the fresh water (that comes from rain falling inland) wages a subtle battle with the tides, pushing salt water out of the interior and creating one of the most productive wetlands on earth. This once was a perfect habitat for wading birds, freshwater fish, alligators, and many other species that took refuge here as development ate away at South Florida’s natural environments.
Unfortunately, over the past 130 years, the Everglades have been degraded by a series of water management projects that were conceived with good intentions, but without much understanding of ecosystems. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, an extensive system of canals and levees opened the valves on development and agricultural growth, and isolated the park from much of the life-giving sheets of fresh water coming down from the north. The water that does arrive often comes at the wrong time, flooding nests of birds and reptiles, and it’s often polluted with high levels of nitrates and phosphates. Many mammals have left, and nesting birds have declined by 90 percent. Everglades is now home to 14 endangered species, more than any other national park.
I’ve chosen Hells Bay for my three-day canoe trip not just for the challenge (“It’s hell to get into and hell to get out,” the old-timers say), but because it’s one of the few navigable waterways in the park that remain off-limits to motors. The Everglades’ premier backcountry route, the Wilderness Waterway, has devolved into a loud, smoky highway, overrun by powerboaters who can make the trip in five hours.
But in Hells Bay, I hear only the wind through the mangrove canopy, which is anchored by a twisted web of red roots rising out of the mud. The stream is just a few inches deep and no more than a couple of feet wider than the thwarts of my canoe. It loops and turns back and forth on itself, a twisting, bewildered mass of water that offers few hints about the direction of its flow. As I push deeper into the mangrove swamp, the sense of isolation intensifies.
This is like no canoeing I’ve ever done. Every acceleration is followed within seconds by abrupt braking, to make a hairpin turn. I average one mile an hour, paddling into the hottest, quietest part of the day. An alligator slides into the water on my approach; a red-shouldered hawk circles overhead.
Mangrove trees are salt-tolerant, which means that as thesea level has risen–it has come up nine inches since 1930–the trees have begun marching toward the interior, supplanting the freshwater flora of the Everglades’ famous “river of grass.” The river of grass is one of several distinct ecosystems, all of which connect in a delicate interplay–an interplay that’s been disrupted by the one-two punch of sea level coming up, and a lack of fresh water coming down.
“In terms of the responses to climate change, what’s happening here is totally off the charts,” says David Hallac, the park’s chief biologist. “The Everglades are on the verge of becoming a monoculture.”
So far, the mangroves are the big winners. But even they may not be able to keep up, according to University of Miami geologist Harold Wanless. “The coast is literally falling apart in response to the sea level rise,” he says. “Hurricanes take 20 or 30 meters of coastline each time. The higher storm surges kill the trees and wash away peat underneath, and you end up with these large, dead, open-water areas.”
The stream gets wider as I wend near the coast, then opens into a series of ponds and bays. Eagles soar above, and a small, black-tipped shark cruises below. Toward evening, a cold front slides in, bringing a 15-knot crosswind. My canoe handling like an unwieldy kite, I muscle across the rough water, stopping to rest in the lee of pods of mangroves, one of which is inhabited by millions of dragonflies.
Finally, I arrive at Hells Bay Chickee, the raised platform that will be my night’s campsite. Trying not to think about the sign warning against eating five species of mercury-contaminated fish, I set up my hammock, cook dinner, and lie back, amazed that I have this whole place to myself.
It had been a hectic few days. I had started my visit to the area in the outer Keys, snorkeling around the outer barrier reef with Chris Bergh, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Florida Keys Program. The reef is a line of defense that protects extreme southern Florida from the full onslaught of storms. It also provides structure for fish populations that are just starting to recover from decades of overfishing. But in some sections, only 10 percent of the coral survives; the rest has succumbed to rising temperatures and bleaching brought on by ocean acidification–an effect of higher CO2 levels.
The next day, I kayaked out to North Nest Key, a trip that promised (on paper, at least) seclusion and Caribbean-quality water. But I spent my outgoing journey dodging drunken powerboaters, then listening to competing stereos as revelers partied the afternoon away on North Nest’s beach. Later, I drove back through the Keys, running a gauntlet of cell-phone towers, screaming billboards, Winnebagos towing SUVs, and road-construction projects that scientists have blamed for a recent rash of toxic algae blooms.
The fact that much of this ordeal took place within the national park’s borders should tell you something about the frontcountry Everglades experience. But now, in Hells Bay, I am alone in the backcountry, hanging in a hammock and surrounded by water and trees and blue sky. As the sun begins to smolder on the horizon, two dolphins swim past, splashing and chasing each other’s tail. The sun goes down quickly, leaving me submerged in an overwhelming silence, under a sky dotted with cool, bright stars.
I became a father at the age of 43, a little late in life. I had reported all over the world, and I had seen enough of the consequences of greed and desperation up close–genocide in Rwanda, assassinations in Colombia, Ebola in Uganda–that I found it difficult to overcome the paralysis of pessimism. In particular, I found it hard to believe that any world my offspring might inhabit would be worth living in.
But I had also experienced the flip side of human folly, in the many generous, undaunted individuals I have gotten to know–people who believed they could make the world better, for humans and for nature. Having children was, for me, a tremendous acquiescence to their optimism. It has also turned out to be the best decision I have ever made.
Our oldest son, Charlie, is 4 now, teaching his younger brother, Joe, how to chase frogs and butterflies around our backyard. But in Vermont, we can see the changes; the average winter temperature in the Northeast has risen 2.8°F since 1971. Summers are rainier, the ski season is shorter, and the maple sap doesn’t run the way it used to.
One of the great joys of parenthood is the chance to share outdoor experiences with your kids. I’m guessing there’s still time to bring my boys to the Everglades and the Wrangells. But what about their children? Will they be able to paddle through these shadowy, jungled passages, and walk among these magnificent glaciers? From what I’ve seen so far, the odds are not good.
On the second day of my Alaska hike, I wake with an energy I haven’t felt for some time. The world might be crumbling under the weight of humankind’s ham-handed machinations, but here I feel nothing but the unfathomable space of blue sky, the press of the mountains, the sharpness of the air in my lungs.
Millen and I break camp, strap on our crampons, and head across the Root Glacier, a river of ice that flows into the Kennicott Glacier just before its terminal moraine. Snapping and cracking all around us and under our feet, the glacier feels very much alive. We skirt glacial ponds of unimaginably blue water, and dodge the crevasse-covering remnants of winter snow, knowing that a careless step could make us part of the history of this place.
Coming off the Root Glacier’s western moraine, we walk through ankle-deep mud at the transition zone, then up a steep hill and onto the scree slope leading to Mt. Donoho’s saddle. Upon topping the scree, we bushwhack through thick underbrush, choking on clouds of alder and willow pollen.
Over the next two days, we push through a landscape that very few Americans ever have the chance to see, a landscape whose scale can be appreciated only on foot. We go from glacier to moraine and moraine to glacier, crossing striped highways of ice and rock and chaotic hills of Marslike rubble, feeling the catabatic winds go from cold to warm in an instant. We spot grizzlies and marmots, ptarmigans and eagles; we hike into the alpenglow, crossing streams and tightrope-walking sharp arêtes, treating blisters and setting up camp as the last of the sun reflects off the high snowfields.
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-ass 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.”
Climatologists say that natural cycles do exert an influence on temperature, but that the current warming trend is driven primarily by a human-produced buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Climate change is measurable, and it’s happening at rate that is virtually unprecedented in human history, with extraordinary implications for biodiversity. In 100 years, Earth’s average surface temperature has increased 1.3°F. Eleven of the past dozen years rank among the 12 hottest on record. While the planet has been in a natural warming cycle for centuries, the current rate of warming is faster than anything detected for thousands of years.
“People are not seeing science; they are seeing what they see,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, a research scientist at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. Author of Communicating Climate Change, Leiserowitz conducted five regional and national studies to try to understand the root causes of the gap between what scientists understand and what the public and policymakers think.
“A major reason science doesn’t communicate well is that scientists tend to communicate in facts,” he says. “They say, ‘Here are the models, the uncertainties, the confidence levels.’ Most people don’t think analytically, they think experientially. And frankly, they don’t pay attention. Climate change gets much less coverage than celebrity gossip.”
That may be true, but there’s no uncertainty in what I’m seeing. A giant glacier–gone. A freshwater paradise–salty. Parks transformed–perhaps forever.
When Congress debated the Everglades park proposal in 1932, it was a new idea: a national park to be created not as a showplace for scenery, but as a shelter for threatened species. Now, the Everglades may gain the distinction of being the first park to be wiped off the map by climate change.
Ironically, things were starting to look better for this besieged park. State, federal, and Indian agencies have embarked on a 35-year, $11 billion effort to restore the greater Everglades. By elevating roads and tweaking the system of levees and canals, they hope to increase the fresh water coming down to the river of grass, and to reinstate some semblance of ecological balance.
Meanwhile, says Everglades superintendent Dan Kimball, the park has ambitious efforts under way to clean out invasives and restore ecosystems: It is burning back advancing hardwood trees, scraping up Brazilian peppers, and culling invasive Burmese pythons with the help of a beagle named Python Pete, whom I meet outside biologist Hallac’s office. The efforts are already showing success, says Hallac, with steady increases in populations of Florida panthers and American crocodiles.
But some, including the University of Miami’s Wanless, wonder whether the government is throwing money away, considering the likelihood that most of this low-lying park will eventually be under water.
Hallac counters that renewal efforts are more important now than ever. “Restoration can enhance the ability of populations and ecosystems to adapt or migrate in response to climatic shifts, buying them critical time while we work to limit climate change,” he says. “We need to get freshwater flows back and get these ecosystems healthy and robust, so that when the sea level comes up, they can handle the stress.”
Hallac shows me a map overlaying various sea-level scenarios on the topography of the park; they’re based on projections from the February 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has projected a sea-level rise of between 7 and 23 inches by 2100, which would erode beaches where sea turtles nest, and submerge tidal flats and inland freshwater marshes that serve as fish nurseries. If seas rise 23 inches, they could drown the park’s pinelands, one of the rarest ecosystems in South Florida.
Kimball refuses to see the glass as three-quarters empty. “Even if sea level rises 23 inches,” says Kimball, “we’ll still have half of our freshwater system.”
Problem is, 23 inches now appears to be a gross underestimate. Several new studies project that rising temperatures and melting ice will push sea levels up at least 3.3 feet by 2100. That’s significantly higher than the prediction in the IPCC report, which did not consider data collected after 2005. Since then, climatologists and glaciologists have developed a better understanding of the dynamics of accelerating ice flow. Ice sheets and glaciers, say scientists, are more sensitive than anyone had previously thought. Instead of melting slowly over centuries, they are susceptible to feedbacks, when melting leads to more melting and ice mass declines abruptly.
“We know well enough that there’s likely to be a higher sea-level rise than the IPCC was willing to project,” says Martin Truffer of the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute. “They are trying to be cautious and conservative. But their conclusions lag behind the latest findings.”
Kimball, a hydrologist by training, appropriately spends much of his time worrying about water. Aside from what a three-foot sea level rise would do to the Everglades–where more than 60 percent of the landmass is less than three feet above sea level–Kimball has plenty of other stuff to worry about. “We’re still rebuilding our infrastructure from Wilma and Katrina. We’ve got coastal erosion, we’ve got people barreling around in powerboats in the wilderness areas. We’re losing the tidal flats, the rich estuaries, entire ecosystems. We’ve got algae blooms, we’ve got droughts and brush fires, we’ve got an explosion of invasive species.”
“Floods, fires, pestilence,” says Stuart Pimm, a Duke University conservation ecologist who studies bird populations in the Everglades. “It’s almost biblical, isn’t it?”
To get a comprehensive view of the effects of climate change on Wrangell-St. Elias, I had to contribute to it, by taking a flight in a single-engine Cessna with Millen and pilot Don Welty of Wrangell Mountain Air.
We take off from McCarthy’s airstrip and fly southeast, on a course that veers past nine of the 16 highest mountains in North America. Even on this hazy day, we can see into the Yukon, over the massive ice fields to Mt. Logan, at 19,550 feet the second-highest peak on the continent. Dumbstruck by the sprawl of snow-covered summits, I write in my notebook: “This, finally, is what possibility is all about.”
We pass over the spectacular Bagley Icefield, which extends east and west beneath us to both horizons, filling the valleys with age-old ice and snow. Out of the Bagley flow the huge Bering, Malaspina, and Hubbard Glaciers and a dozen other smaller ice masses.
Recently released studies by the USGS report that the Bagley is losing mass; another study found that 98 percent of Alaska’s glaciers are either retreating or thinning. From high above, there is no obvious sign of human impact. But when we come in low, we can see the evidence in the details passing beneath us. Following the suggestion of Wrangell’s land manager/geologist Danny Rosenkrans, Welty takes us over Young Creek, where swaths of once-permafrosted slopes have fallen away, leaving huge gouges in the streambank and dumping tons of silt into this tributary of the Copper River, the spawning ground of Alaska’s most prized salmon, the Copper River reds.
“Man, is that lake low,” Welty remarks as we pass over Berg Lake. “In the mid-’80s, the lakeshore was three-quarters of the way up to those spruce trees,” he says, pointing to the southwest side of the lake. In the Copper River Basin, more than half of the small lakes and ponds have disappeared since 1950, as the hard-frozen lakebeds have thawed, allowing water to seep through where it was once contained by ice. These bodies of water provide breeding habitat for millions of waterfowl and shorebirds that winter in southern regions of North America. More ominously, the drying landscapes absorb more heat and release more CO2 into the atmosphere as the carbon stored in the soil decomposes, further contributing to atmospheric warming.
Welty skims over hundreds of acres of spruce trees that appear to have been scorched by fire. The grayish skeletons that blanket the hillsides are what remains after an invasion by spruce bark beetles. The beetles have infested Alaskan forests in the past, but what makes the most recent die-off unusual is the vastness of the area affected–more than 2.3 million acres.
“At first,” says Millen, “people didn’t get that the spruce die-off and global warming were related.” But biologists have now confirmed that longer and warmer summers have allowed the beetles to flourish. The mean temperature in the Wrangells has increased 7°F over the past 30 years, and recent winters have seen warm spells that have brought unprecedented highs in the 40s in December and January.
After zigzagging through notches in the mountains, we reach the coast. Welty takes us to Icy Bay, which broke out of the ice ages only a century ago. We circle for minutes, looking for an iceberg-free spot of beach. “I’ve never seen so much free ice in the bay,” Welty says, before bouncing the plane down with impressive precision. We get out and walk toward the tongue of the Yahtse Glacier, which is shedding chunks of ice with thunderous splashes.
“You look at these massive things from the air and you’d think they’re permanent,” Welty says. “But a lot of them are retreating fast. Year after year, I can see it changing.”
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 begreennow.com), 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.
THAT’S ABOUT THE SAME AMOUNT of time we have before the National Park Service’s Centennial. In the event that we can’t get a handle on emissions by then–a real possibility–we’ll need to transform our thinking about parks. We’ll need to discover new ways to preserve our most cherished wild places and their inhabitants in a way that the current system does not.
These are hard ideas to get your head around. It’s possible that Everglades, Joshua Tree, and other fabled parks could lose their signature features–or simply cease to exist. Already, even preserves such as Wrangell-St. Elias, Everglades, and Yellowstone continue to lose biodiversity at a rapid pace, despite their large size and protected status. With up to 40 percent of the planet’s species endangered, more of conservation’s status quo–sustainable development, wilderness protection, community-based land preservation–isn’t likely to preserve biodiversity into the next century.
To safeguard our wilderness from climate change, we may need to replace the concept of national parks–which Wallace Stegner so famously called the best idea America ever had–with one better-suited to these extreme times. We may need to give up our cherished notion of national parks as permanent preserves with immutable boundaries and unalterable environments.
One ecosystem-wide approach embraced by conservation ecologists is that of reconnecting remaining wildernesses through corridors, on a continental scale. The Wildlands Project, as it is known, calls for “rewilding” North America through four big megalinks: along the Pacific via the Sierra Nevada, along the Rocky Mountains, across the Arctic and boreal forests from Alaska to Labrador, and along the Appalachian Mountains. The project calls for core protected areas to be connected by public and private lands that would provide safe passage for wildlife. Vegetated overpasses would allow wildlife to cross between wilderness areas split by roads, and private landowners would be encouraged to maintain critical pathways. Similarly, a network of protected marine areas could provide migration corridors from southern Florida north along the Gulf and East Coasts, to allow marine species to reach cooler water. Many conservation biologists believe such “megapreserves,” modeled on a deep scientific understanding of continent-wide ecosystems, are our best hope for arresting species extinction.
CERTAINLY, PARKS WERE a farsighted investment, made by people who were thinking of their great-grandchildren–us–when they decided to put a few places aside, knowing that we too would have a deep need for wild places. In an era when Americans were proving that we could tame just about any landscape on earth, some forward-thinking people had the wisdom to leave a few alone.
But national parks weren’t just a one-time investment; they are assets that were entrusted to us to maintain and reinvest in, lest they lose their value. Now that the pace of life has sped up, we need the solace that their natural environments offer more than ever. Each year, the United States loses three million acres of open space to housing developments, malls, fast-food joints, and golf courses. One chunk at a time, the wilderness slips away, which makes the land protected by parks ever more valuable. Will I be able to pass along these timeless jewels, and the values inherent in them, to my own children and grandchildren? When all is said and done, will I be able to tell Charlie and Joe that we did our best? Or will my generation go down as the one that squandered the wilderness we inherited?
“Wilderness is an anchor to windward,” said Senator Clinton P. Anderson in 1963. “Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich nation, tending our resources as we should–not people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.”
But now: floods, fires, pestilence. Are we falling into the sort of desperation that Anderson warned about, spending countless billions to build new roads and coal-fired power plants, digging ever deeper for offshore oil, importing our manufactured goods from countries with few environmental safeguards–and thereby sowing the seeds of destruction of the wild, untrammeled places that helped to define us?
IN CONTRAST TO THE WIDE-OPEN views of the Wrangells, the headwaters of the Everglades’ mangrove swamps are profoundly subtle, intimate country. I leave Hells Bay Chickee in the late morning, and continue paddling toward the coast. In a narrow passage between two bays I encounter my first oncoming canoe–a pair of retired schoolteachers from New Jersey, Charlie and Judy Welch. I ask them if they think much about climate change.
“Yeah,” Judy says. “I see parents driving their kids to soccer practice in their big SUVs, and it makes me worry. What’s going to be left of the natural world for our daughter?”
“It makes me angry,” Charlie adds, “that there’s been no serious energy policy. I’d like to see a presidential candidate say, ‘We need a national effort like when we went to the moon, but focused on stopping global warming.”
A few hours later, I stop to talk to two couples in a passing motorboat. I’d assumed the area was off-limits to powerboats, but they seem nice enough, so I don’t confront them. They seem surprised that someone would attempt a trip through Hells Bay in a canoe.
“How did you get across those big windy bays?” one of the women asks.
“I paddled,” I tell her, and then I say goodbye and continue onward, pulling against a shifting wind and a building tide. If enough people got on board, I think, we could really make some waves. And then maybe, if we all pulled together, we could get somewhere–and arrive, with any luck, before the last of our treasures fades away.
Tom Clynes wrote about a group of teenagers on a life-changing expedition in our August 2007 issue.