Cultural, Environmental, International, Life as it is

America’s ‘Last Frontier’ becoming the ‘Lost Frontier’

Missing glaciers at Denali, Alaska

Nick-named the “Last Frontier”, Alaska is the largest state (in area) of the United States. It is also one of the richest states; thanks to its abundance of natural resources, such as oil, natural gas, gold and fish. The state is home to a vast expanse of pristine wilderness, towering mountains, breathtaking glaciers and big game animals.

Alaska may not fit the bill for what most people envisage as a vacation spot, but it has been on my family’s bucket list for a long time. Finally, our 10-day jaunt started on July 1, 2019 in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. We visited three national parks: Denali Wilderness in central Alaska, Tidewater Glaciers on the Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords near Seward.

We also took a 90-minute flight-seeing tour of Mount Denali followed by landing and strolling on a glacier at 1,750 metres. At 6,200 metres, Denali is the highest peak in North America. A panoramic cruise through the Orca Inlet at Cordova allowed us to see the highest concentration of sea otters in the world. We saw the midnight sun at Anchorage and basked in 24 hours of sunshine at Healy, a backwood small town close to the Arctic Circle.

Besides appreciating the awesome natural beauty of Alaska, what struck me most during the trip is how global warming has pushed this Arctic region into an entirely new climate regime, one that is outside the experience of the aboriginals and native wildlife.

Climate change is occurring faster in high-latitude regions–twice as fast as the rest of the world–due to the phenomenon of “Arctic Amplification,” which is the self-reinforcing process that warms the Arctic and subarctic regions much faster than the rest of the world. Being located on both sides of the Arctic Circle, effects of climate change in Alaska are no longer yearly anomalies; rather, they are daily occurrences.

Over the past 60 years, the average temperature across Alaska has increased approximately by 1.7 degrees Celsius. Warming in the winter has increased by more than three degrees. Temperature in Anchorage three days after our arrival was 32 degrees.

As Alaska continues to warm, average annual temperatures are estimated to increase by an additional 1-2 degrees by the middle of this century, while precipitation is projected to increase during all seasons by the end of this century. Despite increased precipitation, Alaska is likely to become drier due to greater evaporation caused by warming temperatures and longer growing seasons.

With rising temperatures, the threat of massive wildfires continues to grow over time across Alaska all the way to the Arctic. During our stay, about 350 wildfires were raging in south and south central Alaska. Smoke from the fires made driving hazardous, particularly through the scenic backroads.

Warmer temperatures have left vegetation more susceptible to parasites and spruce bark beetles. They have killed more than four million acres of trees in Alaska. Indeed, we saw thousands of dead trees in the Denali Wilderness.

Alaska is full of eye-catching glaciers adorning majestic mountains, but most of them are melting at an accelerated rate. The US Geological Survey estimates that Alaska is losing 75 billion tonnes of glacier a year. Melting glaciers have implications for hydropower production, ocean circulation patterns and global sea-level rise. In addition, glacial meltwater from tidewater glaciers, which are valley glaciers that flow far enough to reach out and calve into the sea, has chemical properties that can exacerbate ocean acidification that is already threatening the fishery industry.

As we cruised on the Prince William Sound, arguably the best place in Alaska to see spectacular tidewater glaciers, we saw fewer glaciers due to warmer temperatures. The largest glacier accessible by car, Matanuska Glacier near Anchorage, is shrinking dramatically at its toe. Furthermore, during the flight-seeing tour of Denali, we saw many mountains with barren slopes and valleys. According to our pilot, they were once packed with glaciers.

Nearly 80 percent of Alaska’s surface lies above permafrost—frozen ground that is typically located a few feet below the soil surface in extremely cold regions and remains frozen year-round. However, as air temperatures are rising, permafrost is thawing in many areas, causing the soil above to sink, resulting in ground subsidence that is damaging highways, railroads, airstrips, homes and other structures. Moreover, shrubs and spruce that previously could not take root on the permafrost now dot the Alaskan landscape, potentially altering the habitat of the native animals.

Because of melting permafrost and subsequent caving of the road, we could not drive from Healy to Valdez via the scenic Denali Highway. Instead, we had to take a 320km detour.

Arctic permafrost acts like a gigantic cap over mineral resources and fossil fuels containing greenhouse gases. But melting permafrost is releasing these gases, particularly methane trapped in ice. Clearly, the loss of permafrost and glaciers is opening new pathways for greenhouse gases, constituting a newly identified, powerful feedback to global warming.

Erosion of Alaska’s coastline is increasing due to the decline in sea ice that protects the coast from storms and tidal surges. The coastal areas are now more vulnerable to devastating storms and heavier rainfall.

The ripple effect of ice loss does not stop here. In the sparsely populated areas, where roads are few and far between, frozen rivers are indispensable for transporting goods, visiting family and taking children to school. With the loss of ice, their communication routes are cut off. Additionally, many people in northern Alaska depend on hunting on the ice. They no longer have access to traditional hunting areas, or access is much more dangerous because the ice is less stable.

Although climate change is having deleterious effects on people all over Alaska, those most affected are the Alaska Natives. Since they live so closely with the land and nature, small shifts in the ecosystems can perturb their way of life. Also, they get food mostly through fishing and hunting, including animals like polar bears, walruses and seals. Changing climate has resulted in the habitat destruction of these animals.

In summary, climate change in Alaska is not a distant or abstract concern, as some would like us to believe. It is real—simply because there is water where there was once ice. Hence, with a gloomy, disaster-prone future, it seems America’s “Last Frontier” will eventually become the “Lost Frontier.”

  • Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

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