Alaska's Sea of Change
Photos and Article: Stephanie Gabel
The last frontier. Land of the midnight sun. Vast, untouched wilderness. Crisp, cool air. Auroras. World class fishing and hunting.
These are among the things that one can expect when traveling to Alaska, as well as tons of activities for people of all ages and backgrounds. As someone that lived there, it has so much more.
Alaska is a natural playground, not for the faint of heart, providing home to whitewater, ocean expedition, backcountry hiking, camping, skiing, hunting and so much more. Access to these areas can be as simple as a walk through town or as difficult as a multi-day approach. But all the public lands, all the areas in which people recreate and draw inspiration from are under fire: sometimes literally.
In the four years that I lived, played, and worked in Alaska, this one point has become abundantly clear; climate change is hitting Alaska hard.
When people think of Alaska in the winter usually these descriptors come to mind: dark, snowy, frigid. The reality in South Central is actually very different, this year for example, Anchorage didn’t get any snow until Christmas Eve, with December 23rd warming up to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Last winter, temperatures fluctuated between the low teens and upper 40s, with precipitation coming with the warm fronts and then refreezing. The melt and freeze cycles that South Central Alaska has been dealing with the last couple of years isn’t quite the worst of the climate crisis.
Villages on the Western Coast have been decimated by winter storms as their protection of sea ice has shortened. The sea ice has been forming later in the winter and melting earlier in the spring every year and in some places sea ice doesn’t form at all anymore. This erodes the banks of the villages and forces people to relocate.
Other villages out in the tundra have had to completely rebuild their infrastructure due to melting permafrost. The disappearance of permafrost means that the foundations of buildings and roadways shift, making structure unstable for habitation and travel.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Alaska has experienced more hot weather and drought in the summers than ever before. Over the summer of 2019, thunder and lightning rumbled through the state, this in itself is strange as Alaska never gets thunderstorms. Wildfires ravaged the state, burning more than 2.5 million acres, which isn’t the highest record, but patterns are starting to change leaving environmentalists and scientists stunned.
Warmer winters lead to unstable conditions for skiers and ice climbers. Warmer summers lead to lower flows on the rivers for kayakers and rafters. Will people continue to recreate outdoors? Absolutely. With all the changes occurring in Alaska, one thing remains the same, the people are resilient and foster a deep love for the state. Anyone who has lived there will say the same thing. Alaska is rich, not in wealth, but in the beauty it has to offer year round, in the resources it provides for its people. For those willing to brave it’s roughness, for those willing to accept the risks of wilderness and exploration, this place has an unlimited pool of introspective knowledge to tap into.
Living a life outdoors instills a need for outdoor stewardship. As individuals choosing to recreate in the outdoors we must do what we can to slow the process of change. We must be better, we must do better. This is a call to action, a plea for help. Politics aside, if we want to continue to have public lands, if we want to be able to recreate, or travel, or have the resources to sustain life on this planet, we must fight to change current policies and come together to save what we know and love about this planet.
“As things around us change as quickly as they do, it occurs to my that if any grace or knowledge is to be found in our watchfulness, it may come in the way we learn to honor what we have not seen and do not yet know. And to respect what we do not yet love.”
-Akiko Busch in the Incidental Steward