Denali: On the Frontlines of Climate Change

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Denali is the tallest peak in the Alaska Range and in North America, at 6,190 meters. It is ofen obscured by clouds in the summer months. When visibile, its prominence is incredibly striking. (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve)

Denali National Park, Alaska – A young grizzly bear ambled up the closed park road, veering off just before reaching our van and making a beeline toward the female grizzly that had apparently kicked her offspring out of the nest.  She looked up from grazing berries, retreated up the slope, then turned and ran him off. Grizzlies move with a burst of speed with grunts and bounding rumps.

We were the only park visitors to witness “ursus horribilis” this August day, counting an amazing seven bears in the west fork of the Toklat Valley. The Pretty Rocks Landslide, a “slow moving disaster” in Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s words, accelerated last August and forced closure about halfway along the 92-mile-long park road.  Visitors could no longer be bussed out to fabled Wonder Lake. Only the few like me who fly to a small airstrip at the end of the road can look out over Wonder Lake, see wildlife up close, and gaze up to the 14,000-vertical-foot Wickersham Wall on North America’s highest peak.

An estimated 600,000 post-pandemic visitors are returning to the east end of Denali National Park this year.  Only one in five will glimpse the 20,320-foot summit.  Almost none will set up a tripod above Wonder Lake where Ansel Adams took his famous picture. Or at the spot where golden, late-day light broke across the mountain, giving Ken Burns what he called the “super holy shit moment” during filming his PBS National Parks series.

“Pretty Rocks is the poster child for melting permafrost,” said Simon Hamm, co-owner of the Camp Denali retreat and learning center, where our party flew out to stay. Thawing permafrost was for years mitigated as the Park Service dumped gravel on the unstable slope. “The slumping went from several inches a year, to several inches a month, to several inches a week,” said Hamm.  

A year ago, unable to keep up, the park ordered evacuation of resorts, and closed the road at milepost 43. Armed with $25 million out of Congress’ infrastructure package, the Park Service is plotting a 400-foot bridge over the landslide, using imported earth to support landings on either side.  The eventual cost, $50-75 million. Our pilot banked toward Pretty Rocks. It wasn’t pretty. My friend Andrew Villeneuve, armed with a new lens, captured the scar and unstable slope that must be bridged to restore access to the legendary spots in a 105-year-old National Park.

In 2021, the Denali Park Road was severed at Polychrome Mountain by the Pretty Rocks slide, preventing vehicle traffic from reaching the Wonder Lake, Stony Dome, and Eielson areas from the park entrance. This aerial view shows the extent of the slide, which was accelerating rapidly before the road’s indefinite closure on August 24th, 2021. (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve)

“There is nothing so American as our National Parks,” Franklin Roosevelt once declared.  Now those parks reflect a country’s warming climate and weather extremes.  Witness the heat, drought, and sudden storms of our current summer. On June 13, a powerful sudden rain flooded the Gardiner River, washing out the main route up to the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park.  For a time, all entrances to Yellowstone were closed, leading to massive lineups at West Yellowstone when visitors were let back in.

Over last weekend, hikers were swept away – and one apparently drowned – on hiking trails in canyons of Utah’s Zion National Park.  Visitors were stranded for a time in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and by a thousand-year storm in Death Valley.. Flash flood warnings went out for McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park at the western tip of Texas.

Just before President Obama left office, then-National Park Service director Jon Jarvis told park superintendents to factor climate impacts in all management plans.  The directive was promptly rescinded by the Trump Administration. After all,  President Trump had described global warming as “a hoax.”

It is a hoax with immediate impacts. Desert heat threatens namesake trees of Joshua Tree National Park, and its California neighbor Mojave National Preserve, with loss of 80 percent of their habitat.   Warming water temperatures have bleached coral reefs in Florida’s Biscayne National Park.  The Everglades and Dry Tortugua National Parks stand to be flooded with sea water as ocean levels rise, in part due to the melting of glaciers.

Alaska politics remains in the grip of oil companies and the carbon economy, but with a price to be paid.  The Arctic is warming more rapidly than any other place on earth. Over the last half-century, temperatures in Alaska have increased on average more than 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with a steeper increase in the oil-producing North Slope.

The tidewater glaciers of Glacier Bay and Kenai Fjords National Parks are receding.  Cruise ships no longer head up Muir Inlet because the Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay no longer reaches tidewater.  Retreat of the Portage Glacier, south of Anchorage, is such that it can no longer be seen from the Portage Glacier Viewpoint. House-sized chunks of tundra are dropping into the Beaufort Sea along the coast of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The ice is going away elsewhere as our parks feel the warming.  The Anderson and Lillian Glaciers in Washington’s Olympic National Park have melted completely in the past quarter-century. The 26 glaciers of Montana’s Glacier National Park have shrunk by as much as 80 percent in recent years: The famous Grinnell Glacier has become a small lake bounded by a snowfield. All of Glacier’s glaciers are likely to be gone in a decade or two.

Heat is the story in other mountain parks. The Mariposa grove of giant Sequoias in Yosemite National Park was closed last month as fire crews fought to save it.   In nearby Sequoia National Park, last September, the General Sherman – the planet’s largest living tree – had to be wrapped in protective foil to protect it from the KNP Complex fire.

A founder of Camp Denali, Celia Hunter, once observed: “With wilderness fast disappearing in the ‘first 48’ states, Alaska offers the last large, unspoiled outdoor laboratory for the study and appreciation of undisturbed nature.” Or as put by visionary Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus, Alaska offered “our opportunity to do it right.”

The timber, mining and petroleum industries resisted with vast financial resources.  But public support was with preservation. With the 1980 Alaska National Interest Conservation Act, Congress designated more than 100 million acres of the 49th state as national parks, preserves, monuments, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, Wild and Scenic Rivers.

I’m tempted to describe what we saw, out beyond Pretty Rocks and on previous Camp Denali stays, as Eden-like. Not so. I’ve witnessed the predator-prey relationship, a wolf playing with and then devouring a Townsend ground squirrel.  The three or four year old grizzly facing his first winter alone.  A plover trying desperately to drive a fox away from her kin. Up along the Arctic Coast, hungry polar bears deprived of prime hunting habitat by a shrinking ice pack.

Climate change has touched very remote and pristine corners of the earth.  It is being felt in “the crown jewels of America” as Andrus described Alaska’s parks, and other places set aside to be left unspoiled. What of the future for Denali?  “The next 30 years will not look like the last 30 years,” said Hamm.

A caribou looks back towards a van full of human observers as it walks the Denali Park Road near Wonder Lake (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve)
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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

1 COMMENT

  1. Joel,
    Thank you for this update, sad as it is, about how our carbon emissions in the lower 48, is destroying Denali National Park as well as other parks across the PNW. I get the feeling that trying to build bridges across climate change landslides and other mitigating efforts may be a lost cause. Perhaps renaming the impact zones after fossil fuel companies that fed our denial of climate change could be useful education tool? Rename the Pretty Rocks Landslide after Exxon, Mobil or BP? Wildfires in sacred redwood forests after Peabody Coal? We need to give these particular “disasters” names after the corporations who caused them.

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