Climate Change Toll in Alaska


Between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors a day arrive at Alaska’s Denali National Park during the week of Independence Day. They find lodging at “Glitter Gulch” across the Nenana River, board park tour buses, use binoculars to scan slopes for grizzly bears, and swat mosquitos.

Not this year. The park has been closed and many staff evacuated due to a fire burning less than a mile from park headquarters. The Alaska Railroad suspended service to the popular park. The 49th state has experienced a dry June, with fires burning more than 400,000 acres, from tundra above the Arctic Circle to boreal forests further south.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet. The carbon economy is a massive presence in Alaska — a source of revenue that dominates state politics — but its footprints  are on display. Come to Denali when it reopens and you’ll see.

A 92-mile road extends westward from park headquarters to the old mining encampment of Kantishna. It gives access to Camp Denali, the legendary backcountry retreat and learning center.

I was enroute there in August of 2021, only to learn that climate change had claimed the road. Accelerated melting of permafrost caused the road to slump on a steep slope called Pretty Rocks at the 45.3 mile mark. The Park service was forced to evacuate visitors.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, used her seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee to secure $100 million to build a bridge over the slide, slated for completion in 2026. Murkowski is, in the meantime, a major advocate for oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and a vociferous critic of Biden Administration efforts to protect critical bird and wildlife habitat in the National Petroleum Reserve west of Prudhoe Bay.

When the pricey bridge is built and Denali Park Road fully reopens, visitors to the west fork-Toklat River can look for another climate impact. The valley is a site of “drunken forests,” trees tipping in all directions due to permafrost melt at their roots,

The park remains glorious. (The park reopened on Wednesday after being closed more than a week in peak visitor season.) I flew out to Kantishna for a 2022 visit to Camp Denali, ogled grizzlies in the Toklat, and feasted on views of the Wickersham Wall and north face of 20,300-foot Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley). Getting late daylight on North America’s highest peak was, in Ken Burns’ words, the “super holy shit moment” in filming his PBS series on America’s national parks.

You come away with a feeling that the land is trying to tell us something.

Fires have consumed vast tracts of land, especially in Siberia and Canada’s Northwest Territories. The Arctic icepack is shrinking, endangering the polar bears who hunt seals from the ice. The retreat of ice has denied Native coastal villages protection from fall storms arriving from the Bering Sea. A young girl tried to explain this at a House hearing in D.C., only to get an angry rebuke from Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

The Portage Glacier, south of Anchorage, has retreated so far and so fast that it can no longer be seen from the Portage Glacier Viewpoint. John Muir helped introduce Americans to the wonders of Glacier Bay, but cruise ships can no longer approach the namesake Muir Glacier due to its rapid retreat from tidewater. Even the atmosphere in parts of the Arctic has become a collection point for pollutants from “down below.”

As a Northwesterner, I’ve become tired of hearing UW weather expert Cliff Mass decry “exaggerations” and unnecessary fear provoked in press reports on global warming. Yet there is the evidence in front of my eyes, and change happening in my lifetime.

The country has done an exemplary job protecting scenic treasures and critical habitats in Alaska, thanks to the last four Democratic administrations. Yet, for all the battles won, pollution of the planet and buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere threatens what has been achieved.

What’s happening up north should be a warning to us down here.

This article first appeared in the Northwest Progressive Institute’s “Cascadia Advocate.” 

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and 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. Joel – spot on as usual. But in my experience what is happening closer to our homes in Washington is more indicative of the way climate change begins its’ destructive path. I will never forget the first time I returned to Washington, flying into SEATAC in 1975, returning after leaving in 1969, the destruction of our beloved Douglas fir forests. I have watched from afar, the slow loss of the natural beauty of the wealth that once was western Washington. So very sad and yet we continue to destroy the natural wonders our grandchildren will never know. Time for change and unless we as humans don’t take the hint, I fear we will destroy what was once one of the most beautiful places on earth.

    Thanks again for reminding us the value we lose everyday.


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