Greetings, Gristmill fans. I’ve been invited to guestblog here for the next couple weeks, while Grist‘s intrepid staff take their much-deserved publishing break.
I’m a freelance writer — maybe you caught the dispatch I filed for Grist last month from the “Institutional Investor Summit on Climate Change” in NYC (good times, folks, good times!) — and a contributor to the blog Worldchanging. Which I hope you are reading right after you read Gristmill every day. Or before. Or maybe you just have them side-by-side on your screen and somehow take them both in at once.
Speaking of vacations, you got yours planned yet?
According to Timothy Egan in this past Sunday New York Times Travel Section (more on that shortly), more and more folks are planning travel around getting a look at Alaska’s glaciers before they’re done in by global heating.
Alaska is changing by the hour. From the far north, where higher seas are swamping native villages, to the tundra around Fairbanks, where melting permafrost is forcing some roads and structures to buckle in what looks like a cartoon version of a hangover, to the rivers of ice receding from inlets, warmer temperatures are remaking the Last Frontier State.
That transformation was particularly apparent at the visitor center here, where rangers [at Kenai Fjords National Park] were putting the finishing touches on a display that sought to explain the changing landscape of the country’s northernmost state. The sign said, “Glimpses of an Ice Age past. Laboratory of climate change today,” and it explained how the Exit Glacier has been shrinking over the years, and what scientists are learning as the state heats up.
Out in the fjords, kayakers paddled into bays newly opened by other receding glaciers. They came to see the ice, a tour guide explained, to paddle around something that had been moving toward a tidewater destiny for thousands of years. And many of them were in a hurry. Glacial pace, in Alaska, no longer means slow.
“Things are melting pretty fast around here,” said Jim Ireland, the chief ranger for Kenai Fjords. Climate change, he said, “has become one of the major new themes for this park.”
Now there are some interesting things going on here. First of all, employees of our federal government are creating interpretive texts for displays that acknowledge how climate change is affecting the Arctic. One wonders how they got that past the now-famous federal interagency review process … maybe Philip Cooney was off that day.
Second, and this gets a lot clearer as you read the whole article, there seems to be a tourism boom going on, as folks flock to Alaska “before it’s gone.”
If anything, say many guides and tour operators, warming temperatures have brought more people, and the Alaska Travel Industry Association is projecting a strong year, surpassing last year’s 1.45 million visitors. And while travel industry officials say they are not exactly marketing the warmer temperatures around a “See Alaska Now” campaign, they say some travelers are driven by concern about the fate of the Great Land in a warmer world. “Our clients are really interested in this,” said John Page, who runs Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking Company in Seward. “Everyone wants to know: Is the ice retreating because of global warming? How’s this going to change Alaska?”
For tourists, it can mean a thrill at seeing a landscape more dynamic than any place on earth — global warming on hyperspeed! — or disappointment that something so wild and massive is, well, shrinking.
What follows booms? Busts, that’s what. One wonders how some Alaskans feel about the potential for their robust tourist economy to diminish along with the glaciers, ice and snow, and eventually the oil fields.
If you’re into the U.N.E.P.-endorsed notion that economic value can be applied to healthy ecosystems (as I recently mentioned in a post to Worldchanging about the worth of healthy mangrove forests), this offers one more indictment of slow action on climate change as very bad economic policy (and not just here, but globally).
Finally: What’s this article doing in the Travel section of the Times? Sure, it’s been sweetened up with a sidebar on how to get to a few other places where global heating is likely to severely alter a natural wonder of the world (“Kilimanjaro International Airport, near Moshi, Tanzania, is served by KLM and Ethiopian Airlines, among other lines.”).
But situating the article as an entry in the where-to-go, what-to-see-there part of the paper seems like a tacit endorsement of seeking some kind of passive entertainment from global climate instability.
Exit Glacier is melting, and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.
(With appreciation to Douglas Adams for the title of this post.)