Second US Presidential Visit to a Glacier

Exit Glacier Trail, Alaska. Courtesy of Brian/Flickr.
Exit Glacier Trail, Alaska. Courtesy of Brian/Flickr.

United States President Barack Obama visited a glacier near Seward Tuesday during a trip to Alaska, making him the second American president to make an official visit to a  glacier. On his trip, Obama took the opportunity to discuss the effects of climate change with Alaska Natives, fishermen and residents of the northernmost state.

“We view this as part of a broader and longer-term effort by the president and the administration to speak openly, honestly and frequently about how climate change is already affecting the lives of Americans and the strength and health of our economy, and also what we can do individually and collectively to address it,” Brian Deese, Obama’s climate, conservation and energy adviser said.

The President and his staff hiked to the Exit Glacier, where markers show the glacier’s retreat in recent decades. Climate change has caused the glacier to retreat an estimated 1.25 miles.

Throughout Alaska, Native communities are struggling to adapt to the effects of climate change. Communities that rely on subsistence hunting find that their ability to harvest meat is dramatically declining as sea ice thins. Dozens of communities are forced to consider relocating as sea level rise  and increased storm surge threaten their towns, a move which would cost millions of dollars.

President and Mrs. Harding at Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska. Courtesy of Alaska State Library.
President and Mrs. Harding at Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska. Courtesy of Alaska State Library.

In many ways, Obama’s visit to the Exit Glacier is a marked contrast from the visit that brought President Warren G. Harding to Alaska in 1923. During Harding’s visit, 5-inch shells were shot into the Taku Glacier to trigger glacial calving. But there are some parallels. Both presidents promoted an extension of transportation into new areas.  Harding pounded the golden spike that completed the Alaska Railroad that linked Seward and Anchorage on the coast with Fairbanks and other towns in the interior. Obama proposed an expansion of the US Coast Guard’s fleet of icebreakers, to help the US keep up with other countries, such as Russia and China, which are increasing their presence in the Arctic Ocean.

Petroleum issues may be the strongest connection between the two visits. Harding’s visit came a year after one of the best-known events in his administration, the Teapot Dome Scandal, in which private oil companies were granted very favorable leases to drill on government lands in the West. The secrecy of the leases caused a public uproar, as did the allegations of bribery. Obama’s visit comes at a time when issues of drilling are once again attracting considerable attention, this time in the Arctic Ocean, and when concern has been expressed over the influence of campaign contributions by energy companies.

Presidents and prime ministers from other countries have also visited glaciers on official trips. Anote Tong, president of Kiribati traveled to a glacier in Norway ahead of Ban Ki-moon’s climate summit in New York in September 2014. The island-nation is rapidly disappearing under water as sea levels rise.

Other presidents have visited glaciers for reasons not related to climate change. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Siachen Glacier, the site of an old battlefield in disputed territory between India and Pakistan.

In 2013, Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera Echenique visited the Union Glacier in Antarctica. There, Echenique expressed his interest in contributing to scientific development and tourism on the southernmost continent.

Obama 2
President Obama, courtesy of John Althouse Cohen/Flickr.

Obama’s recent visit to Alaska came with a strong message about climate change.

“We are not moving fast enough. None of the nations represented here are moving fast enough,” he said at the GLACIER conference in Anchorage, Alaska, on Monday. “The time to heed the critics and the cynics and the deniers is past. It’s not enough to just have conferences. It’s not enough to just talk the talk. We’ve got to walk the walk.”


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