"Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are the living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil."
(A Sand County Almanac)
What Happens in Alaska, Doesn’t Stay In Alaska
by Dale Olen
For three weeks, I traveled through Alaska – the biggest state in the U.S., twice the size of Texas. The only way to get through it was by cruise ship in the inside passage to see the blue glaciers. Then float down the salmon-filled rivers in dinghies, riding trains to remote spots to see where miners thought they might strike gold, and flying with bush pilots in sea/ski planes around McKinley Mountain (now called “Denali Mountain” by Obama much to the pleasure of Athabaskan natives), and taking the buses through Denali National Park looking for big animals. Because so much of the tundra and the forests are in conservation, there were very few walking paths to get up close and sense the energy of the life all around us.
Nonetheless, we were able to do some walking in the dry rainforest, and see the small life around us – the lichen and the moss attached to “nursing trees” that had fallen, lay dead, but were filled with nutrients, mixed with whatever parasites, like moss, that helped make soil and gave the basis for the development of new life.
Wherever you were in Alaska, in the forests, on the streams, in the tundra, even by the glaciers, you had a strong sense of the dynamics of life. The place was filled with it. We saw and felt the presence of bears, muskoxen, moose, elk, caribou, Dall sheep, and glacier wolves; and the smaller porcupine, beavers, wolverines, badgers. Birds like white-headed bald eagles perched on streams or flew low near-by, waiting for salmon to swim along. Golden eagles, black and white ravines hung around too. We saw the beginning of some migrations of birds heading south.
With the bears and the eagles perched at the river banks like so many anglers ready for the catch, I turned my attention to the land, to the water inside the land, filled with salmon and schools of other fish. Throughout our journey we spotted the water animals, from humpback whales to an orca breaching, walruses, narwhals, dolphins and porpoises, sea loins, seals, sea otters, and puffins.
So, from large to small, from water to land, there was dynamic life all around us. Even the glaciers had life. I didn’t see this for myself, but am taking it on the research of some other scientists: There are tiny, transparent, living worms, just under the first sheet of ice in the glacier. Throughout that skin of ice there are small holes, like pours, that allow these worms to sneak out into sunlight, then they slide right back in. Why they are there and what they are doing is beyond the present scientific mind.
All the varieties of life are amazing. You feel surrounded by life. But a dark side nudges its way into Alaska’s life bowl (I’m not just talking about the 23 hours of darkness and the -50 F cold that comes in the winter.) I’m talking about the rapid surge of heat all year round. The average Fahrenheit temperature has risen 3.4 degrees across Alaska. In winter it has risen more sharply to 6.3 degrees F. More winter snow falls as rain today.
In this overwhelming land and water scape of life, you sense the pressing warmth spreading over the “Last Frontier.” You also know deep within your body, the dark and destructive eating away of this life by all the warming already burning here, and the promise that what happens here in Alaska will soon be happening in the rest of the world. Nancy Lord, a 20-year resident of Alaska and a teacher at the University of Alaska, said: “In other words, what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. The polar regions function as the cooling system for our planet. As the climate and environment of the North change, so will the climate and ocean systems that regulate the entire world. The Kansas farmer and Florida vacationer don’t need to care about desperately swimming polar bears or Inupiaq hunters falling through ices to be concerned about what’s happening at the top of the world.”
It was hard to see it at first, because of the vibrancy and the swirl of life in the whole of Alaska. But you do notice the scrawny spruce trees and the low standing water in the streams that should be filled with salmon pounding their bodies toward the salty seas.
Warmer temperatures make for warmer river water, which lowers the oxygen levels in the water. That weakens and slows the salmon, so they cannot reproduce well enough and create strong new babies and frys. Weaker young fish cannot swim and jump rapids as fast as others. So it slows down their travel time. At one river bend, I saw ten or fifteen bald eagles perched, waiting for the fish to swim through. No fish, so what do the eagles do? They start hunting other areas farther North, and pretty soon no more eagles in the present areas.
But stay with the salmon. With that kind of weakness (lack of nutrition), they are much more vulnerable to disease. More die quickly, and so even less swim up the river. They become even more susceptible to water pollutants as chemicals and metals increase in toxicity with higher temperatures. Bears, eagles and other ravines, and natives people who depend on salmon for their survival are struggling.
From afar when you look at an Alaskan forest it appears strong and enduring. But when you get up close to it, there are certainly a lot of trees, but they are mostly thin, small, and with peeling bark. You could walk up to them and possibly shove them over. That’s in part due to drought conditions, but also to only about four inches of soil that covers the volcanic rock beneath. So there isn’t much room for roots to really take hold, grow deep and give big life to the trees.
Now, with the warm weather, the summer season extends about extra three weeks. That changes the behavior of the spruce bark beetles, who usually freeze to death in the long, cold winters. It controls their numbers and keeps them inside longer. But with the warmer weather, here they come. They break out and head for the living, albeit weak, remaining spruce and start eating them to death. Eventually forest turns into grassland and then into tundra (large swaths of lands with no trees).
As more and more trees die from the wrath of the beetles, we get more open space. And you know what that means. One of the best absorbers of CO2 are trees. With the trees gone, more CO2 stays in the atmosphere, leading to further warming temperatures, more active bark beetles, more forests eaten away, and the heat keeps building, beating up the planet.
The north and the west coasts of Alaska are trying to hold back the warmer, more active, expansion of water from the Arctic and Pacific oceans. With warmer temperature, the ocean waters increase their temperatures and expand their water. They receive more melting ice from the coasts and change the ocean currents. The result is that the ocean waters are covering over the islands around Alaska, eliminating the barriers protecting the mainland, and eroding the land, where people live and have had their histories tied for centuries. Now the call is going out that people better think about moving their entire cities inland.
When you think about this beautiful, plentiful land of the living, and you see the habitat of all this life being destroyed, you experience the tension between full life and slow death. But not many people are willing or able to do anything about it. “We should be doing something about this,” as Alaskans in Shishmaref, an endangered little port town, on the coast of Alaska, have been saying since 2006. That’s when the Immediate Response List came out and said this was the time for that community to act. It is now 2015, with President Obama going there and saying it’s urgent to get going on this at a national and world level, but still gives the okay to Shell Oil to set up oil pumps on the Arctic Ocean on the northwest coast of Alaska.
For all these years Alaskans have valued and appreciated the ribbons of life weaving their way through the wilds of their state. And now they know the death chains of heat and CO2 clanging through and collapsing the life structures. Sue Mauger, stream ecologist for Cook Inletkeeper mused: “it’s all additive, the system is getting hammered.” Warmer temperatures, more flooding, greater drying, less shade, and debris, human alterations to the river corridor and upland, invasive species.
What to do when you see this tension between a habitat of life and a potential destroyer of that life?
Pay attention to what’s happening in Alaska and connect it to what is happening in the lower 48. Not as dramatically, but it is. And it will grow more intense as time goes by. Think this through. How do we take care of our water? Conserve it, reuse it, waste as little as possible. How do we monitor it for cleanliness? There are organizations that can help you with that, such as your local Riverkeeper, maybe even the DNR. Decide on getting involved in a water project, such as cleaning a portion of a river, or working to keep the algae out of lakes and streams.
Start talking with local and national politicians, friends, families, neighbors about plans of action as weather events heat up. At first people might think you are a bit goofy to be talking like this. They will remind you of the 50s when we were discussing and practicing hiding out in nuclear bunkers, or under our desks at school.
Finally, we need a rainy day fund. Work with community leaders and financial people who can raise funds for a growing cash reserve for the time needed. When we have to move or strengthen our infrastructure, we will have the resources available to do it. It’s going to be expensive. The reason Shischmeraf’s people have not acted on the big solutions to their heating problems is a lack of money. We need now to start saving for the Milwaukee Fund for Adapting to Climate Change, the Wisconsin Fund, and the U.S. Fund.
Coming out of Alaska’s great basket of life energy with the dark spot that is grinding away that life, gives me an urgency to take action now. I’m still struggling with what to do, but I do know the rest of our 48 lower states must pay attention to what’s going on there, and see it as a mirror for our own state. This destruction of life in Alaska is charging ahead much faster than anyone thought. We have to start now in building the water, waste, and pollution infrastructure to prevent the worst effects of climate change. And we have to start collecting money on a big level to have it ready for quick responses for all the life of every species.