This summer, I was eyewitness to the wildness that is southeastern Alaska, where hundreds of miles of coast and thousands of misty islands are protected from most human interference. Even so, its plants and creatures and glaciers are not safe from the harmful effects of human-caused climate change.
The 16.7 million-acre Tongass National Forest is our nation’s biggest, and it is also the Earth’s largest remaining temperate rainforest. The Tongass is far from pristine — much of the old growth forest has been logged — but to a city dweller like me, it was a wild place. As I watched whales and sea otters swim in Glacier Bay, I worried about their future and ours.
Alaska was telling me something that is far too easy to forget. Human beings are utterly dependent on the rapidly fraying web of life on Earth.
Consider the delicious wild salmon I had for dinner. The Tongass is quite literally a “salmon forest.” Millions of wild salmon return annually to reproduce in its 5,000 spawning streams. Bears carry fish into the forest and, over time, tree roots absorb the nutrients from decomposing salmon. These remarkable connections show us that when we protect Alaska’s salmon, we also protect its forests, water, communities and economy.
The abundant salmon streams of the Tongass are nourished by fresh water flowing from melting glaciers. At the northern end of what is now Glacier Bay, glacial ice was 5,000 feet thick as recently as 1794. Farther south, the current site of Glacier Bay National Park Lodge was still buried under 250 feet of ice.
By 1879, the American Industrial Revolution was underway, the giant sheet of ice was shrinking, and naturalist John Muir of Wisconsin was able to paddle 55 miles further north on open water in Glacier Bay. Today, only a few tidewater glaciers remain in the glacier-carved fjord.
Earth’s climate is always changing and glaciers have always advanced and retreated, but today’s rapidly warming climate is cause for alarm. The world’s glaciers have revealed to us why that is so. Tiny bubbles of air are trapped in ice whenever glaciers form, and scientists have analyzed the atmospheric carbon dioxide preserved, thus creating a temperature record going back 800,000 years. These ice samples contain evidence that since the Industrial Revolution began, humans have added an ever-increasing amount of carbon to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. As a result, heat-trapping gases are warming the Earth more than what is normal, destabilizing our climate.
Alaska has another message: the dire consequences of global warming connect us all. Over the past 60 years, the average temperature across Alaska has increased by approximately 3 degrees, more than twice the warming in the rest of our country. As a result, the state has been devastated by wildfires and drought, melting permafrost and ocean acidification. The consequences of rising temperatures do not stay in Alaska, but have spilled out of the polar region, influencing weather patterns and sea level worldwide. Obviously nations must act together in order to protect our shared atmosphere and common home.
I spoke with Captain John Owen, an Alaskan who has observed significant changes on Glacier Bay over the past 30 years. As he skippered the national park tour boat northward, he expertly spotted sea lions, puffins, otters and mountain goats and pointed them out to thrilled passengers. Our destination was Margerie, a majestic tidewater glacier guaranteed to inspire pure awe in tourists like me. By contrast, Captain John was oddly melancholy. He told me he regarded Margerie as an old friend who is dying.
“Back in the '80s we thought the glaciers would last forever,” he said. “We cheered when a calving chunk of glacier broke off into the sea. Now I know it’s the beginning of the end for Margerie and the others because she’s receding, not advancing.”
He added, “The native people of Alaska have a message for us. ‘We borrow the earth from our children.’”
Captain John’s words stuck with me. As he steered us back to the lodge, I joined a park ranger who led a group of kids and adults in a pledge to protect national parks and other wild places. Afterward, we received our Junior Ranger pins and wore them proudly.
My little plastic pin serves as a daily reminder to spread Alaska’s message. Humans cannot survive without a healthy habitat. We must focus on solutions to climate change and vote for leaders who will act to preserve our common home.
Carrie Scherpelz is a marketing communications professional and longtime Madison resident. On September 20 she will join area youth participating in Madison's Global Climate Strike: http://globalclimatestrike.net.
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