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Alaska wonders what will happen to the tourists when the Mendenhall Glacier is gone

Alaska’s capital, Juneau is proud of its “crown jewel,” the Mendenhall Glacier. But climate change is melting the glacier.

Mendenhall Glacider on Friday, January 13th, 2023. Credit - U.S. Forest Service - Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center
Mendenhall Glacider on Friday, January 13th, 2023. Credit - U.S. Forest Service - Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center

Alaska’s capital, Juneau is proud of its “crown jewel,” the Mendenhall Glacier. But climate change is melting the glacier.

A craggy expanse of gray, white, and blue, the glacier gets swarmed by sightseeing helicopters and attracts visitors by kayak, canoe, and foot. Thousands of visitors pile off cruise ships every day, while vendors and lines of busses wait ready to whisk them away for shoreside trips or a trip to the glacier.

So many come to see the glacier and Juneau’s other wonders that the city’s immediate concern is how to manage them all as a record number are expected this year.

Some residents flee to quieter places during the summer, and a deal between the city and cruise industry will limit how many ships arrive next year, reports CTV News Canada.

Thousands of tourists spill onto a boardwalk in Alaska’s capital city every day from cruise ships. Credit – davidd. CC SA 2.0.

The Mendenhall Glacier is melting quickly in response to a warming climate. The Mendenhall Glacier has retreated approximately 2.5 miles since its most recent maxima during the Little Ice Age in the mid-1700s, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Today, the glacier is receding so quickly that by 2050, it might no longer be visible from the visitor center it once loomed outside.

Juneau and the Mendenhall Glacier

Juneau is the second-largest city in the United States by area. As of the 2020 census, the City and Borough had a population of 32,255. And between the months of May and September, the city experiences an influx of about 6,000 people from cruise ships every single day.

Juneau sits on the mainland of Alaska at sea level, with tides averaging 16 feet (5 m), right below steep mountains about 3,500 to 4,000 feet (1,100 to 1,200 m) high. On top of these mountains is what is known as the Juneau Icefield.

The Juneau Icefield. The image was taken from a helicopter in 2007. Credit – John Mason from Edinburgh, UK. CC SA 2.0.

The Juneau Icefield is a large ice mass from which about 30 glaciers flow; two of these, the Mendenhall Glacier and the Lemon Creek Glacier, are visible from the local road system in Juneau.

The Mendenhall Glacier is about 13.6 miles (21.9 km) long and located in Mendenhall Valley, about 12 miles (19 km) from downtown Juneau. The glacier and surrounding landscape are protected as part of the 5,815 acres (2,353 ha) Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area.

But in the age of climate change, people in Juneau are beginning to contemplate: What happens then?

“We need to be thinking about our glaciers and the ability to view glaciers as they recede,” said Alexandra Pierce, the city’s tourism manager, reports The Toronto Star. There also needs to be a focus on reducing environmental impacts, she said. “People come to Alaska to see what they consider to be a pristine environment and it’s our responsibility to preserve that for residents and visitors.”

The University of Alaska Southeast researchers estimate that the Mendenhall Glacier has retreated eight football fields at its face between 2007 and 2021. Trail markers memorialize the glacier’s backward march, showing where the ice once stood. Thickets of vegetation have grown in its wake.

The Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska (circa 1995). Credit – Gillfoto, CC SA 4.0.

Even though massive chunks of ice have broken off, most ice loss has come from the thinning due to warming temperatures, said Eran Hood, a University of Alaska Southeast professor of environmental science. The Mendenhall has now largely receded from the lake that bears its name.

A look into the future

Scientists are trying to understand what the changes might mean for the ecosystem, including salmon habitat. But the uncertanitiesm extend to tourism, too.

Officials with the Tongass National Forest, under which the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area falls, are bracing for more visitors over the next 30 years even as they contemplate a future when the glacier slips from casual view.

Researchers are saying that they don’t expect the Mendenhall Glacier to disappear completely for at least a century. But they are looking at new trails and parking areas, an additional visitor centre and public use cabins at a lakeside campground.

“We did talk about, ‘Is it worth the investment in the facilities if the glacier does go out of sight?’“ said Tristan Fluharty, the forest’s Juneau district ranger. “Would we still get the same amount of visitation?”

And while the glacier is the big draw for tourists, there are waterfalls, hiking trails and wildlife to grab visitors’ attention. But the big question is – Will it be enough?

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Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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