Glacier Tourists To Get A Dose Of Climate Education In Alaska

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."

Rather than revel in the current tourism boom and resign himself to the inevitable bust, however, Neary wants to use the melting glacier – and the influx of visitors – to educate the public about humans' role in our melting planet. The visitor center is due for an updated master plan, and Neary hopes to use the opportunity to reimagine it as a hub for climate change education. He'd like a new onsite facility to produce all of its own energy and water, as well as encourage tour operators to switch to electric busses that can be charged at the glacier's rebuilt hydroelectric station. He wants future visitors to walk away knowing three things: "That they contribute to climate change. That it's real and it's happening and it's in front of them. And that something could actually be done about it."

Because the vast majority of Mendenhall visitors are bussed to the glacier after disembarking from massive, carbon-belching cruise ships, Neary also hopes to point out the connection between where they've just been and the swiftly-disappearing natural wonder in front of them. "We think of (the glacier) as just a large chunk of ice," he explains. But in reality, Mendenhall Glacier is depositing highly valuable, ground-up organic material into its lake, which then flows by river into the sea. Once the glacier recedes too far above its lake, the supply of nutrient-rich meltwater will be cut off. Combined with ocean acidification and warming seas that could spell disaster for the marine food chain.

"Tourists come to the glacier from the ocean," Neary says. "This points out an ecological connection they wouldn't necessarily have thought of. Melting ice sheets is sort of vague for people; they might think it only affects some distant place like a Micronesian island. I want people to think about how it affects them specifically. How it affects the fish they want to catch or the whales they want to see here in Alaska."

Neary wants to make clear that he's not singling out tourism for its fossil fuel emissions. Everyone, not just cruise ship passengers, are contributing to the environmental changes he sees each day when he goes to work. But "if we make this simple chain between ship and bus and destination, we can start to empower people," he says. "I want to help create a new niche of green tourism."

Infographic courtesy the University of Cambridge. Click to see a larger version.

This story originally appeared on High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.

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