For any use of my photos, please contact me at monika.wieland (at) gmail (dot) com

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Salmon, Birds, and Some Thoughts on Climate Change

Location: Whittier, Alaska
Population: 176

So much for a break in the weather! The rain continued to pour down today, pretty much non-stop. We had a fairly short drive from Seward to Whittier so we decided to sleep in a little bit and then make some stops along the way regardless of the weather. Our first stop wasn't too far outside of Seward at Bear Creek, where the sockeye salmon are running right now. It was the first time I've seen salmon swimming up river - very cool! They're a little hard to see in this photo, but click to see the larger version and you can make out more than a half dozen of them.

While the Alaska salmon are generally considered to be in better shape than their Washington, Oregon, and California counterparts, it's no surprise that salmon politics here are just as complex and controversial as they are further to the south. The salmon we saw today are actually all hatchery fish making their way up to Bear Lake. Nearby was a fish weir where we had an interesting conversation with one of the workers there about local salmon issues. 12,000 fish of the estimated run of 40,000 are allowed to make their way through before the run is open to fishermen. Apparently there is a petition circulating locally trying to close down the hatchery operation, but this is the only sockeye run accessible to sport and commercial fishing in the region. Without them, there would be a huge hit to the local economy both in terms of commercial export and local recreation. These issues get complicated in a hurry as you try to balance the interests of everyone from the eagles and the whales to the fishermen and the landowners, all while maintaining a viable and sustainable fishery.

We had read that Bear Creek was also home to some American dippers, and sure enough we saw a family of them nearby. This parent was feeding a chick that was sitting on a nearby log:

Dippers can actually walk on the bottom of flowing creeks and rivers as they forage, but this ones was perched on a rock and taking an underwater look before diving in:

Since we still had some extra time we decided to take the side trip off the highway towards Hope, a small community that formed during the Gold Rush and still has many of its historical buildings. On the way there my mom spotted a flash of red in the bushes, so we had to circle around to see what it was. They turned out to be two male pine grosbeaks (year bird 204)! This was a great find, a life bird for both my parents and only the second time seeing the species for me. They were right along the roadside eating dandelion seeds:

Pine grosbeaks are known for being fairly tame, and these two were no exception. At one point they were right next to the car, and one even perched on the tire of one of the bikes on the back! Couldn't quite contort myself out the window in time to get that photo.

Next stop was Portage Glacier, where we had planned to take the one mile hike to the glacier view point. By that time, however, the wind had picked up and it was raining sideways, so we aborted that plan and instead just stopped by the visitor center. Here is a photo I took from one of the picture windows at the visitor center, overlooking an iceberg in Portage Lake. I thought it captured the essence of the afternoon quite well:

From there it was only a few more miles to Whittier, but first we had to wait to cross through the longest highway tunnel in the United States - a 2.5 mile single lane tunnel that alternates allowing traffic through from either side and also shares the route with trains going in either direction. Here's a picture taken while driving through the tunnel:

Whittier is a small town with an interesting history. It was established by the US Army during World War II and was the secret site the president was going to be whisked away to if the White House was attacked. It was accessible only by air, boat, or rail until 2000 when the tunnel first opened to cars. It is now known as the gateway to Prince William Sound, and tomorrow night we will catch the once a month ferry that departs from here to cross the Gulf of Alaska and arrive in Juneau a day and a half later. Cross your fingers for calm seas!

I wrote a few brief comments yesterday about how the glaciers were receding before human-caused global climate change really started having major effects, since the Little Ice Age ended about 200 years ago. That said, human activities are a major contributing factor to the increase of global average temperatures, particularly in the last 50-100 years. Few places may be feeling the impacts of climate change quite as much as Alaska is already. Today I was pleased to find some more literature on the effects climate change in Alaska at the Chugach National Forest visitor center near Portage Glacier. Here's a little bit of what I learned.

One of the first things we think of when we think of the climate becoming warmer is less ice in the polar regions. Few climate issues have received as much publicity as the reduction of pack ice and its impact on polar bears, and less pack ice can also lead to more erosion of shorelines. Glaciers are of course affected as well, while the glaciers such as Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park have been receding for the last 200 years, the rate of recession has increased in recent years. The loss of glacier ice can contribute to rising sea levels as well as changes in salinity and currents that may affect fish.

But what else changes, besides a reduction in ice? Permafrost in the interior can melt, destablizing roads and structures and altering habitats. Different species of plants and animals may start encroaching further to the north or to higher elevations based on the changing climate, and may also no longer be able to tolerate conditions in the south or at lower elevations that were previously prime habitat to them. The lack of snow can increase or decrease the die-off of certain species, throwing the ecosystem off-balance. The most noticeable example are the huge stands of dead spruce trees we have seen all throughout our trip, which are a result of the spruce beetle. Infestations have been worse because without harsh winters, the beetles aren't experiencing the die-offs that normally allow the spruce to recover. Also, with less precipitation, the fire risks increase.

Of course, these changes are by no means limited to Alaska. One brochure I picked up today shows some striking pictures of glaciers "then" and "now", over a span of about 60 years, along with the sobering fact that the glaciers in Montana's Glacier National Park may be completely gone by 2030. Alaska is a place where the changes in our climate are more apparent, and also where a lot of research is happening, which is great to see.

The question, of course, is: what can be done? The National Park Service brochure explains that "Many times in our nation's history, citizens have confronted difficult circumstances and found creative solutions....These stories now form a call to action in the stewardship of our resources for future generations. It is important that all of us participate in answering that call." So, with that, I encourage you all to keep taking actions towards a sustainable future. Recycle. Reduce your energy consumption. Use public transportation, or walk, or bike. Be a conscientious consumer. And, above all, continue to enjoy the beauty of the natural world, and foster that sense of awe in others, because surely that is the real key to ensuring the continued health of our planet and all the creatures that call it home.

1 comment:

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

The rate at which CO2 is still being emitted a recent article in New Scientist mention 6C rise in global temperatures heat not seen on planet earth since the miocene period..and all was very different way back then.
recent reportss also allude to massive methane loss from melting permafrost and the expansion of the tree line northwards at a rate of several km a year in places.