Human Interference in the Pacific Northwest & Alaska: Will Wild Salmon Survive?

Anthropogenic environmental changes such as fossil fuel extraction and glacial retreat are two negative impacts affecting salmon species. But not all news is bad news. With retreating glaciers comes the possibility of producing new habitat for certain salmon populations, according to recent research published in BioScience.

Connecting Climate Change with Salmon Species

A total of five species of salmon swim within the rivers of the United States: chinook, coho, sockeye, pink and chum. Glacial retreat presents a variety of unknowns for these salmon species.

Among the climate change consequences, glacial melting upstream leads to changes in magnitude, timing, and frequency of flow downstream, which impacts nutrient levels as well as sediment levels. Warming of glacier-fed rivers due to warmer atmospheric temperatures could destabilize ecosystems and cause population die-offs. Significant warming of the oceans will also lead to damaging conditions for salmon species.

Johns Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park
(Source: John Bloomfield, Flickr).

On a more positive note, glacial retreat could also drive the formation of new habitat for salmon species. Salmon use evolutionary adaptive strategies to colonize new streams and therefore are able to stray from their natal streams to find more productive waters. Evidence of this colonization has already been documented in Glacier Bay National Park with coho salmon.

How much new habitat will be created?

The Earth to Oceans aquatic ecology research team, led by associate professor Jonathan Moore, looked at the impacts of glacier retreat on salmon habitat, specifically which glaciers will establish new habitat. Kara Pitman, a researcher in the lab and a Ph.D. candidate at Simon Fraser University, told GlacierHub that approximately “thirty to fifty ocean-terminating glaciers in Alaska will produce new habitat.”

Areas in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska that have large, low-elevation glaciers will retreat back to expose this new habitat. The Bering Glacier in Alaska is one glacier that is likely to produce new habitat due to its low valleys, according to the researchers.

Image of Bering Glacier in Alaska, USA (Source: liza.liversedge/Flickr).

Pitman suggests that pink and chum species that spawn near the ocean in the river mouth may benefit due to new downstream habitats, and chinook, which spend more time in the freshwater rivers, may also benefit. 

All species of salmon rely on both freshwater and saltwater throughout their lives to varying degrees. Adult salmon spend a few years in the ocean following primary development, but once adult salmon reach reproductive maturity, they undergo physical changes that prepare them to return to freshwater streams. When they reach appropriate stretches of freshwater, they release eggs and sperm into the water, allowing fertilization and the continuation of the cycle of life. 

A member of the Moore Lab on the Edziza Glacier in Edziza Provincial Park, BC (Source: Kara Pitman).

It’s also important to note that salmon are limited by stream gradient; as a result, they will not be able to swim up into many of the new habitats.

Pitman says that there are no salmon present in these newly formed waters at the moment, so there are currently no negative consequences of glacial retreat on these salmon populations.

“There may be no salmon now, but there might be in several years, so there will be impacts,” shesaid.

Mining’s Impact on Salmon Populations

At the same time, human interference such as negligence and reliance on fossil fuels negatively impacts salmon ecosystems across the world, including in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Industrial runoff from mines leaches into nearby streams, pollutes the water and poisons the fish. Preventative measures to manage waste and clean up efforts are not yet developed and little effort seems to focus on advancing protective policies.

Taku Glacier in Alaska, USA
(Source: Barbara Ann Spengler)

For example, mining in Northwest British Columbia and Southeast Alaska is a serious issue that affects Taku, Stikine, and Unuk watersheds. The Taku River contains all five species of salmon and is glacial-fed from Taku Glacier. It is likely that in the near future acid mine drainage will harm fishing and tourism industries, indigenous cultural activities, and local peoples.

Similarly, near Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska, a new mega mine is undergoing proposal and review. The Pebble Mine would be the largest mine in North America and could wreak havoc on one of the most productive salmon ecosystems. 

Immediate action is required to halt future fossil fuel excavation projects and protect wild salmon populations in Northern Pacific and Alaska.

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Climate Change Behind More Frequent & Powerful Avalanches in Alaska

As global temperatures rise, melting permafrost is expected to cause more frequent and hazardous landslides at Glacier Bay National Park (Source: Glacier N PS/Twitter).

Slow-moving changes to the planet are sometimes difficult to grasp on the human timescale. However, on the glacierized peaks of Glacier Bay National Park in southeast Alaska, entire mountainsides are crashing down in spectacular avalanches and landslides. The culprit? Not the more usual earthquakes, extreme rainfall, or volcanic eruptions but melting permafrost from increasingly warmer than normal temperatures due to climate change.

In recent years, southeast Alaska has experienced notable rock avalanches on top of its glaciers. Rock avalanches involve landslides of fragmented rock that become hazardous due to their large size and ability to travel long distances at rapid speeds. In October 2015, the largest non-volcanic landslide ever recorded in North America occurred on the Tyndall Glacier. Second only to the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the massive landslide generated a tsunami wave that rose 600 feet, one of the largest tsunami run-ups ever recorded, and stripped alders off the upper reaches of hills on the shoreline.

Just a few months later, a massive rock avalanche spontaneously materialized on the Lamplugh Glacier. Although initially undetected due to its remote location, seismic instruments captured the event as having as much energy as a 5.2 earthquake.

Intrigued by what was happening in Glacier Bay National Park, a team of three geologists from the USGS explored the timing and characteristics of 24 rock avalanches in the park over a 33-year period from 1984 to 2016. Led by Jeff Coe, the recently published article in Landslide documented three distinct clusters of rock avalanche activity during those years: 1984-1986, 1994-1995, and 2012-2016 through the use of Landsat satellite imagery.

Image of Lamplugh Glacier before the 2016 landslide (Source: Allen Castillo/Flickr).

What they found was remarkable: Coe shared the exceptional size of the rock avalanches with GlacierHub. Since 2012, these avalanches were 1.5 to 5.9 times the next largest avalanche in the 33-year sample. The researchers concluded that the avalanches in this third cluster were primarily caused by the degradation of mountain permafrost from long-term warming, in addition to a record-breaking warm spell from 2014 to 2016 in the region. Besides melting permafrost, the study points to other factors such as glacial thinning, increased precipitations, and accumulating elastic strain, as contributors to the weakened slopes.

The increased size and distance of these avalanches appear to be determined more by winter temperatures as opposed to summer temperatures. Coe explains that the warmer than average winter temperatures are behind the weakening rock masses on top of the park’s glaciers, as conditions fail to refreeze as much during colder months as they have previously. As the temperatures warm up to around freezing-melting point in the late spring to summer months, the masses fail and collapse.

In general, climate change is expected to have an adverse impact on slope stability in Alaska. But there has been limited research to assess what changes have already occurred there. This study provides a robust example to systematically study and document the changes in the size and mobility of rock avalanches in Glacier Bay National Park.

Image of Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska, taken in May 2018 (Source: Allan Watt/Flickr).

One interesting pattern the team noticed in their work was that 75 percent of the rock avalanches come from slopes facing north or northeast. Coe pointed to another study on the European Alps that could be applied to Alaska. Observing similar patterns during the 2003 summer heatwave, the scientists in the Alps study suggested the north-facing slopes in their research had more extensive rock permafrost compared to the southern slopes. With more permafrost, these north-facing slopes would be more impacted by anomalously warm temperatures.

So far, major avalanches in Glacier Bay National Park have struck remote areas of the park where humans rarely visit. But that luck may not continue. These events are a reminder of the increasing instability of the mountains and risks of disasters.

As was evident with the avalanche-induced tsunami in 2015, danger could strike on both land and in the water. Last June, tragedy struck a fishing village in Greenland when a mountain slope collapsed into a fjord, triggering a 300-foot tsunami wave killing four people.

“Going forward, we suggest that rock avalanche activity in Glacier Bay National Park should continue to be monitored to critically assess our results, hypotheses, and interpretations,” said Coe. If their hypothesis holds and warming temperatures are in fact the cause of the destabilization in these historically cold regions, more high-risk areas for landslides and rock avalanches in less remote parts can be expected.

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Hunt for Lost Plots in Glacier Bay Yields Key Data

20th century ecologist William Skinner Cooper has a long legacy. He spurred the establishment of Glacier Bay National Park and was one of the first American scientists to use the technique of aerial photography. His name lives on through Alaska’s Mt. Cooper and the biggest award offered by the Ecological Society of America.

William Skinner Cooper returns to Glacier Bay fifty years after his first visit (Source: Robert Howe/NPS).

That legacy continues in new and unexpected ways in Glacier Bay National Park with a treasure hunt to find nine plots established by Cooper there in 1916. Cooper developed the plots in order to study how vegetation develops after glacial retreat. As soil evolved and buried the marker stakes, the plots were lost. A century after Cooper began his experiment, Brian Buma, professor of ecology at University of Alaska Southeast, was determined to relocate the plots and launched the hunt.

Such bridges between the past and present are what national parks are all about, according to Glacier Bay National Park ecologist Lewis Sharman. In 1916, Cooper recognized that Glacier Bay was changing rapidly as its glaciers retreated and exposed new land to primary plant succession.

“Glacier Bay is one of the most dynamic landscapes on earth,” said Lewis. “It’s the quintessential national park in that it encompasses a landscape with great scientific value. Scientists here are like kids in a candy store.”

“It was the most fun I’ve ever had on any science project,” added Buma, who recently published his results in the journal Ecology. “It had everything: adventure, old documents, old-school orienteering.”

The first clues to the plots’ whereabouts came from a paper Cooper published based on his trip to the area in 1916. “The directions literally read “‘From large rock, walk 30 degrees east 40 paces, to small cairn.’ It was very Indiana Jones,” said Buma. The project’s National Geographic funding included a trip to the archives in Minnesota that house Cooper’s original field notes. Some notebooks are stained by water and others burnt by sparks from campfires, according to Buma.

His research in the archives pointed to “Teacup Harbor,” a distinctive round inlet in the West Arm of Glacier Bay. Buma decided to start there, in a search he called “truly for a needle in haystack.” Magnetic north has changed by eleven degrees since Cooper’s day, so the original compass bearings were wrong, and large boulders Cooper used as landmarks are now cloaked by plants.

The plots are located in the West Arm of Glacier Bay. Photo A shows the view from plot Q1 in 1941, and Photo B shows the same view in 2016 (Source: Brian Buma/Ecology).

Isostatic rebound, the rise of land formerly depressed by the weight of a glacier, also transformed Glacier Bay’s landscape and confounded Buma’s search. Rebound has dramatically changed Teacup Bay’s shoreline and the distance of some plots from the water. Undaunted, the team headed to Glacier Bay. Their search process involved scouting from a boat, matching the landscape before them with photographs from the 1970s, and “stumbling around the woods looking at 100-year-old sketches, trying to decipher what a ‘pace’ was,” said Buma. At a likely site, they’d use a metal detector to hunt for the stakes framing the meter square plots.

Cooper’s experience locating the plots would have been far less arduous. A distance Cooper would have tromped in five minutes across the gravel takes thirty minutes or longer today, tortuously zigzagging through brush, according to Buma. “I’d love to know what he’d think if he could come back and see the plots,” said Buma.

Bushwhacking through willows up to five meters tall and staying vigilant for bears, the team found the first three plots fairly quickly, but it took four days to find the next. One plot was lost to erosion in the 1930s, but by the end of their search, the team had found the other eight.

Locating the oldest successional plots in the world came with a wealth of data. In tandem with studying the current plant communities, Buma is analyzing data generated by Cooper and one of his graduate students from as far back as the 1920s. “The collaboration is still going,” said Buma. “This is the longest record of this kind.”

The record shows that whichever species first colonizes the new terrain tends to dominate the landscape. This is the reason for the lack of trees in the area, according to Buma— they can’t establish a hold in the ground that willows colonized first. Today, the plots are surprisingly different in terms of species composition, percent cover, and soil characteristics. Those nearest to the mouth of Glacier Bay, closer to potential seed sources, have the highest species richness.

Each pair of photos is taken from the same spot, facing the same direction. The landscape has changed dramatically (Source: Brian Buma/Ecology).

This experiment is emblematic of the importance of national parks as protected areas, says Lewis. “National parks protect American heritage for present and future generations, and provide the opportunity to conduct long-term scientific research,” said Lewis.

After delving into the past, Buma’s eyes are set on the future. This summer, he’ll return to Glacier Bay with a dendrochronologist and population ecologist to expand the plots, hopefully extending their usefulness another hundred years. Now that succession rates from the last century have been established, the team will seek sites where glaciers receded in the late 20th century in order to compare how rates of succession shift with climate warming. “Is succession moving faster now that the planet is warmer?”  Buma wonders.

As he thinks about the future, he is determined that the plots’ locations will never be lost again and that this important data set will outlast his own research. The GPS points are now on file with the National Park Service, and people will have to apply for access to the coordinates.

First, Glacier Bay was a land of ice, then a land of rock, and now it is a land filled with plants. “As climate warms up, it’s not good news for Glacier Bay,” said Buma, “But it will be interesting to see how the flora changes.”

John Hopkins Glacier has retreated a great deal since Cooper’s time (Source: NPS).

The linkages forged by this study, between landscapes and scientists of the past, present, and future, will be essential to understanding the changing landscape of Glacier Bay.

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Tribal House in Glacier Bay Park Recognizes Huna Tlingit

A newly constructed tribal house within Glacier Bay National Park in the Southeast Alaskan panhandle begins a fresh chapter in the contentious relationship between the Huna Tlingit, a Native American tribe, and the National Park Service (NPS). For much of the 20th century, the NPS infringed on Huna hunting rights and appropriated the majority of Huna land to create a monument, and later a National Park and Preserve over 5,000 square miles in area

The recently opened 28,000 square foot tribal house coincides with the NPS’s 100th anniversary and will serve as a gathering center for the Huna, displaying artwork and cedar carvings, while also informing some of Glacier Bay’s 500,000 yearly visitors about the Huna’s rich culture. 

The house sits on the Huna’s ancestral homelands in Bartlett Cove, originally known in the endangered Huna language as L’eiwshaa Shakee Aan, which translates to “Town on Top of the Sand Hill.” It will memorialize the lost clan houses which used to dot the coast but were destroyed by the rapidly advancing Grand Pacific Glacier in the 1700s. The glacier cleared the land, including wildlife like salmon found in the streams, and destroyed Huna villages. But beginning in the 1800s, the glacier began to recede, leaving 100 miles of destruction in its wake. By the 1830s, the wildlife returned, along with the Huna, who set up seasonal camps where they fished, hunted and collected gull eggs and berries. The new tribal house will be the first permanent house since the glacier drove the Huna away to their current village, Hoonah, 30 miles south, where over 800 of them dwell.

house-front
The tribal house opened last August (Source: NPS).

Remnants of tribal dwellings and other evidence of the Huna’s presence can still be found in the park. For example, cairns are memorials or landmarks made of mounds of stones marking the highlands used to retreat from floods associated with environmental change. In addition, archaeologists have discovered old smokehouses, house pits, and culturally modified trees stripped of bark, which may have been used for markers, baskets, pitch or shelter.

Around the time the Huna returned to Glacier Bay, Westerners also arrived. Captain George Vancouver, an English Naval Officer, surveyed the area in 1794, and John Muir, often referred to as the “Father of the National Parks,” visited between 1879 and 1899. Muir is sometimes credited with the discovery of Glacier Bay, although he relied on Tlingit guides to get there. The area was proclaimed a national monument in 1925, a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, and finally, a national park in 1980.

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Sea lions in Glacier Bay National Park (Source: Creative Commons).

When the monument decree was passed under President Calvin Coolidge, the Huna Tlingit were not consulted, leading to anger among tribal members, and in addition many tribe members did not speak English. The NPS increasingly infringed on the Huna’s hunting rights, first limiting firearms to protect brown bears in the 1930s, and then ten years later outlawing all hunting and trapping except for seals, which the Park Service later banned in 1976.  

In 1992, a Huna hunter in the Park was ordered to appear before a federal magistrate in Juneau for shooting a seal that was going to be used in a potlatch, or ceremonial feast, and his gun was confiscated. Around the same time, the Park Service began considering phasing out commercial fishing which prompted peaceful protests on the shores of Bartlett Cove by the Huna. Speeches were given by elders about Huna history and the importance of subsistence. Following the protests, constructive talks began, and in 1997, the idea for a tribal house was accepted by the Park Service.

tlingit1
A tribe member donned in the traditional regalia (Source: NPCA).

However, limited funding slowed the tribal house project down. In 2013, superintendent of Glacier Bay, Susan Boudreau, redirected concessionaire franchise fees toward the Huna Tribal House, which ultimately cost $2.9 million dollars.

Eugene Hunn, a professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, told GlacierHub, “This new tribal house should strengthen Huna Tlingit claims to their traditional territory within Glacier Bay National Park and provides them a long-overdue central role instructing the tourist public about their deep historic ties to the local landscape.”

The tribe hired carver Gordon Greenwald to oversee construction of the handcrafted totem poles, interior posts, and floor-to-ceiling wooden screens, which depict pictures of tribal stories. A carved screen inside the house depicts complex stories of the four clans in separate canoes, and a fifth canoe represents all other people holding their paddles vertically as a sign of friendship. 

Traditionally, each clan would build their own house but they decided on a common house, an idea that was controversial at first. The interior posts feature colorful depictions of wildlife common to Glacier Bay, many of which serve as crests of Huna’s Glacier Bay clans.

gordon
Gordon Greenwald , a Huna carver (Source: NPCA).

Last August, the Grand Opening Ceremony of about 800 people– a mix of tribal members, Park staff, and visitors– celebrated as members of the tribe ceremonially arrived in canoes donned in traditional regalia. It had been many years since the Huna paddled the 30-mile journey from Hoonah to their ancestral homeland in Glacier Bay. There was chanting, singing, and drumming while clan elders burned cedar and spruce chips and poured seal oil over themselves as gesture of thanks to the trees that gave their lives for the construction of the house and canoes.

The tribe named the house Xunaa Shuká Hít, which translates to “Huna Ancestors’ House.” They called out the name during the ceremony, a Huna tradition intended to breathe new life into the house. Later in the night, about 300 guests crammed into the house to dance and cheer for the long awaited opening.

Thomas F. Thornton, an anthropologist who has worked on issues concerning the Huna since 1991, told GlacierHub, “It was a great day of celebration in August of 2016 when the Huna Tlingit were again able to inhabit a tribal house in Glacier Bay, having been forced out, first by the glacier’s advance and then by the Park Service’s exclusionary policies.”

Park service staff and tribal members hope the new tribal house can be a model for making amends with Native people.

“These descendants of Glacier Bay should not only have the right to harvest cultural foods and other resources in the park but also to have a meaningful partnership in the interpretation and management of their traditional homeland,” Dr. Thornton observed. “Although there is still healing and work to be done, this is a constructive start to what could be a new era of mutual recognition and cooperation in curating and caring for this magnificent World Heritage Site.”

 

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