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ECOVIEWS: Every ecologist should visit Glacier Bay

Ecologists are told to visit the tropics to fully appreciate the earth’s myriad plant and animal interactions. But what about the other end of the environmental spectrum – the frozen northland? I recommend a trip to a glacier. If even the most conservative scientific predictions of global climate change are accurate, time is running out in most areas to appreciate the full icy spectrum. Glacier Bay National Park in southeastern Alaska, our largest national park, is the ideal choice.

GBNP encompasses more square miles than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. About 20,000 years ago, following the end of the last ice age, the region warmed up. The phenomenon of retreating ice revealed open rocky terrain that became habitable by wildlife. During the ensuing, relatively warmer, times, humans inhabited the region. Then came the Little Ice Age. Giant glaciers formed in Alaska and advanced down the valleys, forcing the humans inland to warmer areas. The region was again covered with thousands of square miles of snow and ice, with no open water.

Capt. George Vancouver of England sailed to the region in 1794. His ship’s log did not mention that Glacier Bay is a majestic place to visit. Instead of an expanse of water, Vancouver found a hunk of solid-packed ice roughly 20 miles wide and 3/4 of a mile thick. In 1879, only 12 years after Seward’s Folly had been purchased from Russia, came another visitor, John Muir. He traveled by water 40 miles farther up Glacier Bay than Vancouver had. In less than a century, a solid, impenetrable glacier had retreated almost 50 miles, leaving a scoured valley filled with navigable seawater. Today, the face of the glacier has retreated another 25 miles, creating a 65-mile-long bay with numerous fjords and more than a dozen side glaciers, most of which retreat farther every year. 

In 1925 President Calvin Coolidge designated Glacier Bay and surrounding areas as a national monument. Congress made it a national park in 1980, and the United Nations recognized the area as a world heritage site in 1992. This vast and impressive region deserves all the environmental recognition and protection we can give it. The wildlife is astounding – on land and sea, and in the air. Humpback whales, seals and sea otters abound. Puffins, bald eagles and glaucous-winged gulls add another level of environmental magnificence. Bears, moose and mountain goats inhabit a land often covered by magnificent virgin spruce forests.

Environmental views concerning Alaska and its natural resources run the gamut. Some people see a land where rugged independence translates into unrestrained oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and clear-cutting in old-growth national forests. Others feel just as strongly that unspoiled habitats and environmental sustainability should be the order of the day. And whether the undisputed decrease in the size of nearly all glaciers each year is a result of human-caused global warming is a polarizing topic. Some of the debates will not be resolved for decades, if ever.

One point is not debatable. Glacier Bay offers a fascinating environmental lesson in ecosystem development. Starting at the cold end, near the face of the glacier, only mosses and lichens cover the exposed rocky surfaces. Along the many cascading streams of melting ice that flow into the bay, willows develop after a few years. Then come alder and cottonwoods, hemlocks and spruce forests. The biological succession is a relatively orderly process from lichens to mature spruce forests. Once plants become established, terrestrial mammals appear – moose, mountain goats, bears and wolves. Birds and sea mammals arrive when the waterways open up, providing an abundance of fish. The ecosystem is elegant in its simplicity and offers many ecological lessons.

Young ecologists should visit wild tropical ecosystems with their intricate evolutionary relationships created over eons. In fact, anyone interested in nature would benefit from such a trip. I also recommend a visit to a glacier, which offers a simple yet dramatic view of how ecosystems are born.