How Mendenhall Glacier Teaches About Climate Change

Mendenhall Glacier (Source: Cameron Cowles).

Visiting Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska is a memorable experience for about 575,000 visitors each year. A top attraction, the glacier stretches 13 miles across the Juneau Ice Field, terminating on the far side of Mendenhall Lake. Surrounded by 38 other glacial remnants of the last ice age, it remains one of the most visited and visible of Alaska’s glaciers.

A trip to Mendenhall offers the opportunity to hike on top of a glacier, drink from a cool stream and talk with other tourists from around the world. Visitors may also interact in the deglaciated landscape with plants, wildlife and birds on one of the trails leading through the Mendenhall Valley and the Tongass National Forest. Most importantly, visitors can witness firsthand the glacial retreat that has visibly altered the Alaskan landscape. U.S. Forest Service Rangers have learned to tell Mendenhall’s tale, a story about the effects of climate change and consequences of a warming planet.

John Neary is telling stories to the tourists (Source: Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
John Neary is telling stories about the glacier to tourists (Source: Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO).

A visit to Mendenhall comes with an upsetting observation: glaciers in Alaska are retreating at an alarming rate. The Mendenhall Glacier has receded more than a mile and a half in the last half century, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Unfortunately, glacial retreat will only likely continue due to our warming planet, impacting tourism and the surrounding ecosystem. Animals such as the mountain goat, black bear, porcupine, bald eagle, and beaver, as well as countless plants that grow in the area, will all be affected. That is why the staff of the U.S. Forest Service and John Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, are using the Mendenhall Glacier to educate visitors about climate change.

“In 1982, the glacier was just another glacier because I didn’t have the experience of watching it disappear over time,” John Neary explained to GlacierHub. “Now that I have watched it quickly shrink, I’m alarmed and feel it should be used to demonstrate how our world is dramatically changing.”

For his part, Neary relies on his own experience with the glacier when talking to visitors about climate change. He tells them about the time he was out hiking on a steep trail beside the glacier and his dog fell 90 feet onto the ice. When Visitor Center was opened in 1962 it was just a quarter mile from the glacial face. In 1982, when he first saw it, the face had retreated another half mile. Most recently, he has been watching the glacier retreat further, leaving the lake that it had once reached.

Neary works with a team of 25 Forest Service staff to explain these effects to the tourists every day. At the visitor center, visitors can learn about Mendenhall’s glacial retreat through art exhibits, a 15-minute film, and guided walks. With a window facing the glacier, the rangers talk regularly about the effects of climate change.

“We describe the mechanics of glaciation, the value of glaciers and the worrisome scale of their disappearance,” says Neary. “But we hope to do much more with this subject in the future.”

Ice Cave Exploration at Mendenhall (S‎ource: Adam DiPietro)‎
Ice cave exploration at Mendenhall (S‎ource: Adam DiPietro)‎.

The glacial retreat of Mendenhall can be easily observed by visitors in photographs at the visitor center or witnessed by repelling deep into the ice caves that are formed when the glacier melts and erodes. Adam DiPietro, a tourist who was exploring one of the ice caves at Mendenhall, described the experience to GlacierHub: “My friend and I discovered the moulin [hole] a couple of weeks ago and came back with gear to descend into it. We repelled 70′ to the bottom and crawled through a small hole at the base…The cave is not continuous yet, but someday it will be since the glacier keeps retreating.”

According to Neary, most visitors he encounters acknowledge climate change, but not all. Some attribute the glacier’s shrinking to a “natural cycle,” not one accelerated by greenhouse gases. “It’s hard to judge how many doubters we are changing because people tend to be very set in their beliefs,” he says. “But we feel we are introducing them to different ways of thinking about the climate and the effects.”

Mendenhall Glacier (Source: Jack Froese).
Mendenhall Glacier (Source: Jack Froese).

This involves promoting and demonstrating sustainability like low-carbon electric transit and renewable energy. “We want to communicate an irresistibly positive vision about what can be achieved when a community has the will to be more sustainable,” says Neary. “We hope to do it in ways that people love. In fact, our slogan is ‘Love Your Glacier.'”

As director of the visitor center, Neary has supported the restoration of a historic hydropower project and the development of a sustainable building that uses clean energy and produces little waste. This would allow the Forest Service to be energy efficient and produce less greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. Exploration of the site by foot, paddle, cycle or by non-motorized boats is also being promoted where appropriate. The goal, according to Neary, is to connect people to nature through their direct experience with practical, sustainable solutions to everyday challenges. Neary’s efforts have paid off: the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center has gained national attention because of its use in climate change education for tourists and fellows.

A group of Norway cruise delegates visited the center and learned a lot from it (Source: John Neary)
A group of Norwegian officials studying sustainable tourism visit Mendenhall (Source: John Neary).

Neary seized on the opportunity to awaken a global audience to the relationship between carbon emitting devices and shrinking glaciers. The climate change perspective of the visitor center is unique, with the center standing in front of a rapidly deteriorating glacier that sends a compelling message about global changes and our responsibility to consider sustainable lifestyles.

“Glaciers are rapidly disappearing from around the globe and people want to see them, to walk on them, to touch them while they still can,” says Neary. “Alaska remains a beautiful and safe destination, but we suspect there may be more driving this interest in glaciers and wildlife. It’s possibly what some have called ‘Last Chance Tourism,’ which is when people want to ‘see it before it’s gone.'”

Mendenhall Glacier Juneau Alaska (Source: Takaki Yamamoto)
Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska (Source: Takaki Yamamoto).

Neary’s job is not an easy one, but he never stops making the effort to convince visitors that climate change is real and that we can all take action to address its effects. He attempts to convince visitors to alter their lifestyles to help fight off global warming.  It may seem scary to some people to give up cars and oil heaters, but Neary, for one, believes Mendenhall proves that the sacrifice is well worth it.

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