Alaska tourism threatened as iconic glaciers melt away

A view of Exit Glacier from the National Parks trail. (Courtesy National Parks Service)

A recent study found that two-thirds of the world’s glaciers could disappear by the end of this century. That may sound pretty far into the future, but in Alaska those frozen landmarks are a strong attraction for the state’s tourism industry.

For at least one glacier-focused company, Seward-based Exit Glacier Guides, which takes visitors to its icy namesake, the end is already in sight.

“The difference from the glacier over the past decade is mind-boggling,” said Brendan Ryan, the company’s founder. “It’s a completely different topography out there than it was, you know, even really six years ago.”

The receding Exit Glacier is located at the edge of the Harding Icefield just west of Seward, and it’s shrunk by more than 2,300 feet since 2004.

In 2005, Ryan’s company started taking hikers out through a backcountry trail that took them directly onto Exit Glacier. They now offer helicopter tours and ice climbing as well, but the guided hikes that they’re known for are becoming more challenging.

Ryan said it’s getting harder and harder to access the glacier from the trail.

“Rather than it being a gentle step up, it’s literally a sheer wall of ice because it’s melted so far back from the sides of the cliffs where it used to be butted up against,” he said.

These days, Ryan said they often have to cut stairs into the ice to get up onto the glacier, and those stairs usually melt away by the next day. They’ve also had to lengthen their tour times and implement a number of new safety measures.

Seward local and Exit Glacier Guides guide Tekla Seavey smiles atop Exit Glacier. (Courtesy Exit Glacier Guides)

“To see the difference from when we started running out there, to what it is now, it’s unrecognizable,” Ryan said. “It’s almost emotionally hard for me to go out and be on Exit Glacier anymore. So I don’t do it very often, because it is so much different. It kind of hurts, if that makes sense.”

In January, a study published in the journal Science found that glaciers around the world are melting faster than anticipated, and at the current rate of global warming, two-thirds of Earth’s glaciers could be entirely gone by 2100. That would have drastic consequences for sea level rise and for the billions of people who rely on that runoff for everything from drinking water to irrigation.

In Alaska, the impacts are visible now.

Mike Loso is a glaciologist with the National Park Service based at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. 

“I like to say that in Alaska, the glaciers are not ornaments on the mountains,” Loso said. “To a large extent, they are the mountains.” 

He explained that glaciers are an iconic part of the state and an integral part of many Alaskans’ lives.

“Many, many people in Alaska have had the experience of walking on glaciers, skiing on glaciers, snowmachining on glaciers,” Loso said. “You don’t go and just see one off in the far distance.They’re a regular part of our lives in a lot of ways, at least for many of us. And that’s changing, and it’s going to change even more. Our landscape, as we know it, is really being changed wholesale.”

Because they’re so large, most of Alaska’s glaciers won’t go extinct any time soon, he said, they’ll just shrink out of the views we’ve become accustomed to. Loso said that many of our tourism patterns are oriented around where glaciers are now. Exit Glacier and the Kenai Fjords are popular because they’re easy to get to from the road system.

“And so they’re hotspots for tourism, and we have businesses and communities that have developed around those hotspots,” he said. “Some of those hotspots are not going to be any good for viewing glaciers in 100 years or even in 50.”

National Parks Service glaciologist Mike Loso measuring snowpack depth. (Courtesy Mike Loso)

It’s unclear how fast and how far the glaciers will retreat, because the degree of change depends on how much more we heat the planet. Loso said this new study illustrates that we can substantially reduce the amount of glacial loss if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The glaciers of the future are going to be responsive to the choices we as a society make,” Loso said. “And so, though some additional loss of glacier mass is inevitable, the magnitude of that loss is in our hands.”

According to Loso, the National Park Service is now partnering with the researchers behind the January study, Carnegie Mellon University and author David Rounce, to refine their survey model with specific observations of glacier change in Alaska.

In the meantime, tourists will continue flocking to communities like Seward, where the harbor comes alive every summer with tens of thousands of people eager to see the glaciers and wildlife of Kenai Fjords National Park.

Kirsten McNeil is the marketing manager for Major Marine Tours. She said the company hasn’t started planning for a future without tidewater glaciers, but viewing them is a vital part of their business.

“We would have to change our entire operation,” McNeil said. “As far as where we go, the routes we take, what we’re telling passengers we see. I believe it would happen gradually over time, but it would definitely make us change our operations and what we’re promising that passengers will see.”

For businesses like Exit Glacier Guides and founder Brendan Ryan, though, the timeline is much shorter.

“Eventually, it’ll mean that we don’t run our operations at all at Exit Glacier,” Ryan said. “And each year, we think that’s an inevitability within the next couple of years.”

Ryan said his mindset at this point is to not look too far into the future. He’s just trying to eek out one season at a time.

Michael Fanelli reported on economics and hosted the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. 

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