Home Outdoors Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Climate Change and Alaska Tourism

Should I Stay or Should I Go?: Climate Change and Alaska Tourism

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Professor Peter Convey and John Neary held a conference call on Tuesday to highlight the findings of a new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report as they relate to the Alaska tourism industry.

Convey, an ecologist, has worked with the British Antarctic Survey at Cambridge for 26 years, while Neary is the director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center in Juneau.

Convey said that climate change was “unequivocal” and that there are no quick solutions. Even if carbon dioxide output were eliminated now, he said, it would take centuries for the atmosphere to return to sustainable carbon levels.

The message for Alaska is that the effects of climate change on tourism are here to stay. Convey suggested that there may be the potential for diversification of tourism in Alaska. What he called “last-chance tourism,” the opportunity to see natural wonders before they are gone forever, may produce a bump in tourism numbers. However, this will be a “short lived bliss,” he said.

Neary, who has worked in Alaska for 33 years, agreed that last-chance tourism was legitimate. He described a history of tours during his time in Alaska, first to see the Tongass National Forest before it was logged, then the North Slope before it was drilled. Now, he said, Mendenhall Glacier is part of that pathos.

However, while warming has increased the Summer tourism window by two or three weeks, Neary said, it has reduced the area’s snowpack, which in turn harms the salmon run and bear viewing opportunities, a popular activity that brings revenue.

Alaska Commons has previously written about the reality of climate change and its everyday effect on Alaskans. But as Convey and Neary point out, tourism will inevitably be affected.

mendenhall-tutenTourism is the second leading driver of the Alaska economy behind oil. The industry supported almost 40,000 jobs, nine percent of statewide employment, between October 2012 and September 2013. During that time frame, nearly 2 million people visited the state, spending $1.8 billion. Of that, $101 million benefited the state government and $78 million went to municipalities.

The allure of Alaska is its environment, its landscapes and its wildlife. Yet climate change is already being felt in some of Alaska’s most dramatic places.

Most visitors to Alaska travel via cruise ship through the Inside Passage and Southeast. Anthropomorphic climate change has accelerated the retreat of ice in Glacier Bay, allowing cruise ships to navigate the bay and make the scenery available to a greater number of visitors. However, the glaciers continue to retreat, as Convey says, reducing the quality of the experience.

This is also true at Neary’s Mendenhall Glacier. Glaciers, he said, are the canaries in the coal mine. Neary told the Juneau Empire in April that Mendenhall Lake would be without icebergs within a decade and that, eventually, the glacier will no longer be visible from the visitor center.

While the glacier melts, it becomes more dangerous for visitors and Juneau residents alike. Glacial meltwater that pools behind the ice has led to several outbursts in recent years as the pressure finally forces the water underneath the glacier, an event known as a jokulhlaup. An anticipated jokulhlaup closed campgrounds, cabins, and trails this month.

At 450,000 visitors a year, the center is, as Neary describes, “the golden goose; it’s an attraction that makes money.” But that economic driver for the Juneau area is threatened if the glacier becomes a less desirable destination for visitors.

As an harbinger of the potential impact of a glacier-less Mendenhall Valley, Neary compared Mendenhall with Portage. While Mendenhall visitation numbers have recovered to pre-recession levels, Portage visitation has not because Portage Glacier is no longer visible from the visitor center.

The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center in Portage was designed to capture the grandeur of the glacier. Upon conclusion of an introductory film, the screen at the center would lift to reveal the face of the glacier stretching across the viewer’s field of vision. Now that the glacier has retreated around a corner, the screen lifts to reveal a lake, sometimes even devoid of icebergs.

While Southcentral is not as dependent upon cruise traffic, most cruises through Southeast either terminate or originate in Seward or Whittier. Itineraries often include a day in College Fjord, surrounded by its glaciers descending from the Chugach Mountains. These glaciers are responsive to the same stressors as those of Glacier Bay and the Mendenhall Glacier.

College Fjord is an important component of day cruises based out of Whittier, including a popular cruise that advertises itself as the “26 Glacier Cruise.” Since wildlife in Prince William Sound is still recovering from the Exxon Valdez spill, which Convey mentioned in his remarks, the health of the glaciers is integral to scenic cruises in Prince William Sound. Whittier has limited facilities and access, so day cruises are an important part of the local economy.

According to a 2011 survey conducted by the McDowell Group, over one-third of visitors to Alaska take a day cruise. Over half participate in wildlife viewing. Like Whittier, these activities combine in Kenai Fjords National Park, upon which Seward is partially dependent.

Kenai Fjords has seen significant impacts resulting from climate change, including the population reduction of some species, the retreat of glaciers, and melting of the massive Harding Icefield that feeds them. Exit Glacier, a glacier in the park notable for exceptional accessibility, is retreating very quickly. Between October 2012 and September 2013 alone, the glacier retreated over 130 feet.

Just as threatening to the long-term economic health of the Seward area is the decline of marine mammal populations. The Alaska SeaLife Center is studying numerous potential reasons for this decline, particularly in Steller sea lions. Convey posits that pollution and competition from commercial fishing are two causes.

Another potential cause is ocean acidification, the process by which pH is reduced as the oceans absorb atmospheric carbon. This is more pronounced toward the poles, Convey said. Long-term, marine mammals will be affected through the food chain as plankton and shellfish struggle to form shells in the acidic water. A reduction in what Convey calls “charismatic wildlife” — think sea otters — reduces Alaska’s attractiveness as a destination.

According to the Ocean Acidification Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, yields of salmon, crabs, and oysters may decline, putting a crimp in tourists’ plans for an Alaska seafood dinner. This will be particularly disappointing for the 20 percent of visitors who come to Alaska planning to catch that dinner themselves.

While the impacts of climate change on Interior are less obvious to a visitor, Convey mentioned permafrost degradation and the challenges it presents for construction. One-third of Alaska tourists visit Interior and its economic anchor, Denali National Park. A virtual tour of the park documents the impact of climate change, including the park’s shrinking glaciers and increasing woody vegetation, which will in turn affect wildlife and the viewing experience.

Only about 14 percent of visitors come to Alaska during the Fall and Winter, but this is an important source of income for many guides and resorts. With a winter season up to two months shorter, winter resorts might not be viable, Convey said. Mountain tourism faces increased probabilities of avalanches and landslides, which raises questions of logistics and insurance, he said. Neary agreed that investment in Alaska tourism overall was “somewhat of a question.”

71 percent of visitors said they were “very satisfied” with their overall experience in Alaska in 2011. That dipped to 55 percent for wildlife viewing. Less than one-third were “very satisfied” with the value for the money. This suggests that if Alaska fails to deliver on its reputation of abundant wildlife and glacial vistas, tourists may take their money elsewhere. Pre- and post-recession statistics, particularly for cruise passengers, support that demand for trips to Alaska is elastic.

Despite the majority of climate-related bad news for Alaska tourism, Neary sees the potential for a new green tourism niche. Tourists arrive on cruise ships that belch CO2, he says, then ride up to Mendenhall Glacier in diesel buses that coat the glacier with carbon and accelerate melting. They do not see the connection, he believes.

But Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center could be overhauled to showcase the valley as an example of climate change. The old Nugget Creek power station could be refurbished and employed to lower the center’s carbon footprint. The buses that move visitors to and from the port could be converted to batteries. By moving toward carbon neutrality, Neary says, the center could demonstrate to visitors what they too can do to stem the tide, even as the glacier melts away.