Glacier tourists to get a dose of climate education in Alaska

What a melting glacier can teach cruise ship passengers.

 

Two big things have happened since John Neary arrived in Alaska's rainy capital city 33 years ago: Juneau's most famous attraction, the Mendenhall Glacier, has receded by more than a mile; and the number of visitors to the glacier has nearly tripled, to 450,000 a year. “On Monday afternoons, the busses are lined up 30 deep,” Neary says. “The place is not suited to the volume of traffic it's receiving.”

The surge can largely be explained by an increase in Alaskan tourism over the last few decades. But visitors have more than doubled in the past 16 years alone, and at least part of that can be attributed to “last chance tourism,” or the flow of people rushing to see at-risk places before they're destroyed by climate change. An online list of the top nine destinations to explore “before climate change takes them away” includes the flooding city of Venice, the acidifying corals of the Great Barrier Reef, and the receding glaciers of Alaska.

Yet while Alaskan cruise lines are reaping the benefits, the economic boon of last-chance tourism is, of course, fleeting. A few hundred miles away on the Kenai Peninsula, Portage Glacier has seen its visitor numbers drop dramatically, in part because the once-famed tongue of ice has retreated completely out of sight. Neary, who took over the direction of the Forest Service's Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center 18 months ago, says that's not an immediate concern at Mendenhall, but before long, there won't be any more translucent blue ice floating in Mendenhall Lake.

“When I first came here, the glacier was visible from the west lake shore line,” he says. “Now you can't even see the face.”

The ice caves at Mendenhall Glacier may disappear as the glacier recedes, but the real damage is likely to occur downstream, in the marine food chain.