Warming Rivers Are Causing Die-Offs Among Alaska Salmon

Dead chum salmon lined snow-fed and rain-fed rivers across Alaska, where lethally high temperatures and low water levels prevented migration. With their original habitat under threat by global warming, cold glacial water is becoming more necessary for the survival of salmon.

Salmon are born in freshwater rivers. They swim to the ocean to spend their adulthoods, and then return to the rivers to spawn four or five years later, Holly Carroll, a Yukon-focused biologist at Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, told GlacierHub.

Salmon felt the effects of July’s record-breaking temperatures in Alaska this summer as they struggled to reach their spawning grounds. They do not eat once they begin the journey back to the rivers, Carroll said, meaning that they have a limited amount of energy to make the trip. “So if they then encounter really warm water, it puts their body under much more stress,” she said. The heat speeds up their metabolisms so that salmon can run out of energy and die mid-journey.

As salmon suffer in Alaska’s warming snow- and rain-fed rivers, some scientists are looking to glaciers to predict the future of these fish. 

The Die-Offs

According to NPR, the largest die-off occurred in the Koyukuk River, a tributary of the Yukon River. The dead salmon count was in the thousands to ten thousands, Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, told GlacierHub. She put together a team of scientists and surveyed 200 miles of the river to count the salmon—they found at least 850 dead —and confirm, by cutting the fish open, that they had not spawned and had no signs of disease.

“The die-off coincided with record-breaking temperatures in Alaska,” she wrote in a Facebook post.  Some places on the Koyukuk reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit from July 7 to July 11—25 degrees above average. July 12, she noted, was when when locals began seeing dead chum salmon floating downriver.

Quinn-Davidson’s team examines salmon along the Koyukuk River. (Source: Stephanie Quinn-Davidson)

The Koyukuk is fed by snow and rain, Carroll told GlacierHub. This year, the snow melted quicker, leaving the river with record-high water levels earlier in the season and very low levels in the summer. The drought also deprived the river of much-needed rainwater.

The Bristol Bay area also experienced salmon die-offs, particularly in the Igushik River, which flows from Amanka Lake into Bristol Bay. Tens of thousands of fish were found dead in the Igushik, according to Timothy Sands, area management biologist of the Nushagak/Togiak region.

An early-melting snowpack led to low water levels, aiding in the rise of temperatures, Sands told GlacierHub. The snowpack usually continues to melt through June, he said, but this year it vanished in May. Lower water levels enhanced the heating of these waters which are already susceptible to warming as a muddy river in the tundra.

While Koyukuk salmon died of heat stress, the Igushik salmon died of oxygen depletion, Sands said. The river is prone to oxygen depletion due to its geography: The elevation drop in the river is minimal, and so the flow of the river is slow and tidal. This means less recycling of water and less replenishment of oxygen.

High temperatures increase a salmon’s metabolism, so that it increases its need for oxygen at a time when there is less of it in the water, Mary Catherine Martin, communications director for Salmon State, told GlacierHub.

Even with the die-off, Sands said, the river reached its escapement goal, which is the number of fish that are required to reach their  spawning grounds in order to ensure a new generation of fish. “It’s a healthy system,” he said, noting that this year’s run was the third highest since 1884. 

Dead chum salmon lined the Koyukuk River this July. (Source: Stephanie Quinn-Davidson)

Habitat in Danger

Sue Mauger, science director at Cook InletKeeper, has been monitoring stream temperatures in Alaska’s Cook Inlet since 2002. She told GlacierHub that she was surprised there weren’t more salmon die-offs this summer, considering that the waters reached temperatures that are considered lethal for salmon. In the Deshka River, she said, temperatures were warmer than those expected for 2069 under a worst-case climate model.

The fish survive by finding cold-water refugia, which are pockets of cold water in which the salmon can wait for temperatures to diminish. In the case of the Deshka, she said, a connected glacial area provided this space for salmon to wait out the heat.

In deep rivers, groundwater inflows, side channels and springs provide the same service. But when rivers experience low water levels, “you don’t have those deep cold refuges, then the salmon don’t have anywhere to hang out and wait until the temperatures start to drop,” Quinn-Davidson told GlacierHub.

Development also harms this habitat, Mauger told GlacierHub. Abstaining from building near rivers is “a decision that we need to make,” she said.

In Bristol Bay, the Environmental Protection Agency took a step towards the opposite decision this month by allowing a mining project to progress unopposed, despite the risks to salmon.

A New Glacial Habitat

“This summer has a lot of the components that we should expect to see in the future, and that includes having a warm spring, which means that however much snowpack we have is going to melt out earlier,” Mauger said.

Salmon are finding new spawning grounds in the vast habitat of cool streams that Alaska’s receding glaciers are leaving behind. In Glacier Bay, Kenai Fjords National Park, and other areas, salmon are beginning to inhabit these streams that benefit from ice melt all summer long.

But the situation is more complicated, according to Chris Sergeant, a researcher at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks who studies the effects of temperature and other stream conditions on salmon. “While a glacial river might protect salmon from warm water temperatures [in the summer], they may not necessarily be the best place for salmon to grow in rear during all the other months,” he said. In the winter, he told GlacierHub, young salmon grow faster in warmer waters. Since glacial streams are prone to flooding, spawning there also means a risk that the eggs will be swept away in water.

In the summer, he said, “some of these fish will live in the glacial systems for a few months, and then they’ll move into a smaller tributary fed by rain or snow” for the remainder of the year.

These are juvenile fish, though. After salmon spend their adulthoods in the ocean, they return to the exact rivers they were born in to spawn the next generation, for better or worse. “A lot of studies recently suggest that not only do they return to the same river where they were born, but they also spawn… within twenty feet of where they were born,” Martin said.

Glacial mainstem rivers (the brown water) mix with other habitats in the Taku River watershed, located between Alaska and British Columbia. Preserving a diversity of habitats will help ensure healthy salmon populations continue in the face of climate change, Sergeant told GlacierHub. (Source: Chris Sergeant for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Montana)

Response to This Year’s Die-Offs

There is not much to be done about the die-offs besides collecting data, Carroll said. The locals—many of whom are native Alaskans—are key to this. With extensive tributaries, the Dept. of Fish and Game relies on locals to report natural events in the river.

In the case of the Koyukuk river, Quinn-Davidson said, the expedition she organized would not have happened without the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, which represents over thirty federally recognized tribes along the Yukon River. “Alaska is currently experiencing a pretty major budget crisis,” she said. “It was good that our organization could step in, bring us all together, provide the funding to take us all out there, and more properly document what was going on.”

Salmon are of great importance to the local communities, who rely on the fish for food and their livelihoods. A commercial fishery for chum salmon is located on the lower part of the Koyukuk. “That fishery really helps the local economy because most people that live along the Yukon are native Alaskans and there’s not a lot of local jobs,” she said.

“People were able to meet their needs for salmon this year despite the die-offs,” Quinn-Davidson said. “Now the big question is, how much will this die-off impact future years of salmon returning—because those salmon didn’t end up spawning.”

According to Carroll, it’s likely that the next generation will not be negatively affected, since fewer young salmon can minimize  over-competition.

The die-offs did not pose an existential threat to salmon this year. According to Martin, the multitudes of dead salmon, along with the state’s wildfires, were a reminder that “climate change is happening, and it’s real, and it’s going to be an increasing part of the conversation here in Alaska.”

Photo Friday: Alaska’s Arrigetch Glaciers

Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park was established in 1980 and is comprised of 8.4 million acres of rugged landscape. Wilderness advocate Robert Marshall gave the park its name, citing two peaks, Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, as the gates from the central Brooks Range to the Arctic.

The elements and tectonic shifts have given shape to Gates of the Arctic.

So, too, have glaciers.

The glaciers of Gates of the Arctic are unique—they are the only ones lying entirely above the Arctic Circle. Among them are those snaking through the Arrigetch Peaks of the Brooks Range.

Remnants can be seen of the glaciers that carved the dramatic Arrigetch Peaks in the Brooks Range. (Source: National Parks Service)

Arrigetch means “fingers of the outstretched hand” in the Inupiat language.

Runoff from the park’s glaciers feeds several rivers that cross Gates of the Arctic, including the Alatna, John, Kobuk, Noatak, North Fork Koyukuk, and Tinayguk. Those rivers provide sustenance to the park’s rich plant and animal life, which, in turn, has provided resources for people going back 13,000 years, when nomadic hunters and gathers inhabited the region.

The Arrigetch Peaks of Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The park’s glaciers, like many others in Alaska and within the US parks system, are retreating. The National Park Service estimates the Arrigetch Glaciers have receded about a quarter of mile in the past century. And, as those glaciers shrink, salmon populations are declining, which impacts the livelihoods of communities living and working downstream.

A map of Gates of the Arctic National Park (Source: National Park Service)

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate as lower latitudes, which is melting land and sea ice, as well as threatening biodiversity.

Read More on GlacierHub:

Alaskan Glaciers Are Melting Twice as Fast as Models Predicted

Park Officials Remove Signs Warning That Some Glaciers Will Disappear by 2020

Snow Algae Thrives in Some of Earth’s Most Extreme Conditions

Photo Friday: Losing Ice and Ecosystems

A recent New York Times interactive article documents the changes of glaciers around Washington State and Alaska. The melting of these glaciers has a heavy impact on more than just sea level rise. It impacts salmon spawning, river and stream patterns, and nearby landscapes. Changes to glaciers also impact the nutrient balance and temperature of glacier-fed watersheds. These disruptions can shift a whole ecosystem.

Climate reporter Henry Fountain and photographer Max Whittaker ventured to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to evaluate the impacts of melting glaciers on local ecosystems.

Glacial ecosystems have adapted to fit this cold water environment. As the temperature of the water rises, it becomes more difficult for smaller species to remain in their habitat and could potentially cause them to die out.

The impact on glacial melt on salmon, however, is more complex. Salmon are major income source in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Though temperature is also important to salmon migration and reproduction, there could be some temporary benefits for salmon in terms of glacial melt. The melt brings rocks and boulders that were not in the river bed before, providing excellent spawning sites. Because of this, some areas could actually see an increase in salmon populations.

Read more on GlacierHub:

Drying Peatlands in the Bolivian Andes Threaten Indigenous Pastoral Communities

Measuring the Rise and Fall of New Zealand’s Small and Medium Glaciers

Advances in Developing Peru’s National Policy for Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems

Roundup: Plant Life in Extreme Conditions, Freshwater in Tibet, and Alaskan Salmon

The Growth of Simple Plant Life in Extreme Conditions

From Polar Biology: “Aerial dispersal in the colonization of bare ground by lichens in the polar regions remains poorly understood. Potential colonists may arrive continually, although extreme abiotic conditions limit their viability. [The authors] investigated the vegetative dispersal of Antarctic macrolichens along a successional gradient (from 8.6–7.0 ka BP up to present) after glacial retreat on James Ross Island, in the Antarctic Peninsula region.“

Read more about the research here.

Olga Bohuslavová, one of the lead researchers on this project, speaking with Prince Charles (Source: Masaryk University).


Future Warming and Water Resource Availability in the Tibetan Plateau

From Earth Science Reviews: “Future climate warming is expected to have a significant effect on the operation of Earth and Ecological systems. A key concern in the future is water resource availability. In regions such as the Tibet Plateau (TP) lakes and glaciers appear to be highly sensitive to climate forcing and variations in the size and extent of these systems will have profound socio-economic and environmental consequences in South and Central Asia.”

Learn more about how these water sources will be affected here.

Qinghai Lake, China’s largest lake in China, located about 100 kilometers west of Xining (Source: Iwtt93/Flickr).


What Does Glacial Retreat in Alaska Mean for the Salmon Population?

From BioScience: “Glaciers cover 10 percent of our planet’s land surface, but as our climate warms, many glaciers are shrinking. As glacial retreat proceeds northward along the Pacific coast of the continental United States, through Canada, to Alaska, it is creating new stream habitat for salmon that has not existed in millennia. When and how will this new stream rollout happen? Where will salmon be distributed in the future?”

Find out what they discovered about the future of the salmon population here.

Alaskan salmon attempt to swim upstream (Source: Andrew E. Russell/Flickr).


As Alaska Glaciers Shrink, Salmon Populations May Also Decline

A view of the Kenai River (Source: Frank Kovalchek/Wikimedia Commons).

Alaska is experiencing some of the most rapid changes to glaciers and ice fields on Earth. Global warming is causing drier summers and wetter autumns, and changing the landscape through the melting of glaciers and the loss of wetlands and wildfires. The salmon population in the area will also likely be impacted from these environmental changes: some will benefit from the changes, while some will be negatively impacted. A new study in Fisheries Journal investigates the region’s Kenai River and the future climate change impacts on healthy salmon populations.

Salmon in the Kenai River

The Gulf of Alaska region produces a third of the world’s wild salmon; however, the Chinook Salmon (O. tshawytscha) population has declined. Environmental changes are likely to impact future populations. The Kenai River supports world-famous fisheries in the region and exemplifies the high social, economic, and ecological value of wild salmon as well as the complex changes they face. Its yield faces a serious threat with the area strongly influenced by glaciers that are losing mass. The Chinook Salmon may not recover, and the populations that are declining threaten the livelihoods of the dependent fishing communities. The fishing communities are diverse and include indigenous, sport and commercial fishers. The authors of the study wrote, “Kenai River salmon support several of Alaska’s largest recreational salmon fisheries, major commercial gill-net and personal-use dip-net fisheries, as well as small-scale subsistence and educational fisheries.”

The Salmon Life Cycle

Chinook Salmon (fry) (Source: USFWS Photo by Roger Tabor/Flickr).

Chinook salmon is an anadromous fish species. Individuals hatch in freshwater rivers, then the young fish swim out to the ocean to grow and mature, and later return up the river to spawn and then die. The cycle begins as the female lays eggs in the gravel on the bottom of the river (this nest is called redd). The redd is then fertilized by a male, and the eggs remain in the gravel throughout the winter as the embryos develop. As the eggs hatch in the spring, alevins emerge. Alevins are tiny fish with the yolk sac of the egg attached to their bellies. After they have consumed the yolk sac and grown larger, they emerge from the gravel and are then considered fry. Fry can spend up to a year or more in their natal stream. After, the fry begin to migrate downstream toward the ocean.

Eran Hood, professor of Environmental Science & Geography at the University of Alaska Southeast, told GlacierHub that glaciers provide an important source of streamflow during the late summer salmon spawning season. In addition, Hood added, “glaciers are important for moderating stream temperatures during warm periods when spawning salmon can become metabolically stressed by warm water temperatures and associated low levels of dissolved oxygen.”

Glacial Rivers

Glacially-fed rivers respond to weather and climate differently than non-glacial rivers. During hot and dry summers, the water in a typical non-glacial river will warm up and streamflows will drop. However, the same summer conditions will cause glaciers to melt faster and lead to more cold water input into glacial rivers. In Alaska, many important salmon rivers are fed by a mix of glacial and non-glacial streams. If one of the streams suffers from drought conditions, there is a chance that another stream in the same section of the watershed has a lot of deep and cold water. Schoen explained to GlacierHub, “This habitat diversity helps to stabilize salmon runs on a large scale, and lessen the risks of boom-and-bust dynamics in our fisheries.”

Jeffrey A. Falke, professor of fisheries and assistant leader at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, explained to GlacierHub that the major concerns from a freshwater perspective are changing patterns in the timing and magnitude of stream flows, and increasing water temperatures. “Salmon are at the margin of their range in much of Alaska so the latter may be less of an immediate concern. However, changes to flows have already occurred and are projected to increase into the future,” he said.

Falke told GlacierHub that the glacial rivers are an important habitat for multiple species of salmon across Alaska. The river bottoms and banks are also important habitats for the fish. Glacier loss causes changes to the hydrology of these systems, which includes both the rivers and the habitats that they support. Climate change could make the glacier river systems more similar to surface water/snowmelt runoff systems, which would therefore reduce the diversity of habitats. By reducing or removing the habitats favored by specific salmon species and by specific stocks (sub-populations) within the species, it would also reduce the salmon biodiversity. Falke further stated, “I’m not sure we can do anything about glacial loss, but continuing to work to ensure that there is a broad array of intact habitats in other areas will be key.”

Perspective rendering showing retreat of the Skilak Glacier, a major source of glacial runoff to the Kenai River. Colored lines indicate ice extent for 1952, 1978, and 2013 derived from aerial photographs (Source: Future of Pacific Salmon in the Face of Environmental Change).

The author of the study, Erik Schoen, a postdoctoral fellow at Alaska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told GlacierHub that climatic and landscape changes influence salmon ecosystems. These diverse ecosystems are large, varied, and interact with glaciers in different ways,. Thus, the changes will not necessarily be all negative or all positive. “Some of the salmon runs that Alaskans have relied on for generations are probably going to decline, but other runs may become more productive, and we have a chance to shape that with strong habitat protections,” he said.

Changing Environmental Factors

The authors of the study conclude that salmon rivers in this region face a complex set of climate-driven changes, including warmer summer stream temperatures, glacier retreat, and increasing streamflows during fall and winter when developing embryos are vulnerable to more rapid flow even in relatively sheltered areas where females deposit their eggs.

The overall results of climate change are likely going to cause winners and losers, the authors note. There are five species of Pacific salmon, and they each use a range of different life-history strategies and habitat types, so are likely to respond in different ways. Schoen explained to GlacierHub that hotter, drier summers will expose salmon to low oxygen levels which can cause die-offs. “This is a big concern in small, lowland streams, but less so in streams with a cooling glacial or snow-melt influence. Warmer winters are causing more rain-on-snow events, which can cause floods that kill salmon eggs in the streambed,” he said. It’s important to mention that some streams are more likely to be affected than others, he added. A positive outcome from glacier retreat is that it allows salmon to colonize new streams and lakes. Longer ice-free growing seasons allow the juvenile salmon to grow larger in certain habitats.

Economic Impacts

Schoen explained the economic importance of salmon in the region: “Salmon fishing is one of the main pillars of the Kenai Peninsula’s economy, and an important part of the overall Alaskan economy. This includes commercial fishing (and support industries) and recreational fishing, which is a major driver of the tourism industry.”

The study can help build resilience toward a changing climate. Schoen told GlacierHub, “Our goal was to highlight the rapid changes happening in the Gulf of Alaska region and explain what this means for salmon and the people who depend on them.” There is a large amount of research documenting these changes; however, the majority does not always allow for an easy understanding of the big picture. “We wanted to make the science more accessible to the general public, policy makers, and scientists in other fields,” Schoen added.

Increased Resilience

A Chinook salmon or Oncorhynchus tshawytscha (Source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game).

Falke told GlacierHub that the best way to ensure robust salmon populations is to maintain and promote diverse habitats and life histories. “Luckily in Alaska there are mostly intact habitats, and the example of the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery is the best to highlight how diversity equals both ecological and economic resilience,” Falke added.

Schoen explained to GlacierHub that prior research has shown that fishing communities can stabilize their revenue streams by diversifying their catch to include different fish species and stocks. A stock of fish is a population within a species that migrates together, breeds together, and is genetically distinct; one species will have a number of stocks, some of which could respond to climate impacts more favorably than others. However, many fishing communities have adopted strategies that are the reverse, concentrating their efforts on fewer stocks. “Diversifying the fishing sector (and overall economy) is an important goal to increase the resilience of Alaskan communities to rapid and unpredictable climate change,” Schoen further explained.

Hood told GlacierHub about the critical importance of more holistic research, which can provide an understanding of how glacier change is impacting the structure and function of food webs downstream rivers and estuaries. “This information will allow us to better project future impacts and understand how ecosystems services such as fisheries and tourism opportunities may change in the future,” Hood added.

This research show the complex effects of glacier retreat on salmon populations and the humans that depend on them. Though most salmon species face less favorable conditions in most of their range, some species are hit harder than others. And the impacts on the habitats, though generally negative, are less severe in some areas than others, and some new habitats are being created by glacier retreat. This article marks a major advance in this complex system, a topic of great importance for the fishing communities— indigenous, sport and commercial fishers.

Thinking Like a Fish: Navigating Arctic Streamflow Change

This story is Part II of a two-part series on the Tanana River Watershed. See Part I here.

Melt from Alaska Range glaciers feeds lowland rivers through the year (Source: Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District).

Long-term monitoring has consistently shown that winter flow levels in Interior Alaska rivers are rising. But why? Precipitation is not systematically increasing, and most source waters are frozen in winter. According to a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, the answer comes from far away: as mountain glaciers melt during the summer, melt water percolates into aquifers and later resurfaces downstream, making streams flow fuller in the coldest months.

For University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher Anna Lilijedahl and her coauthors, arriving at this conclusion meant uniting two different disciplines. “I came to realize by talking to colleagues and friends and reading papers that in the Arctic, the glaciology and hydrology communities are often doing the same things in parallel,” Lilijedahl told GlacierHub. “I saw an opportunity to link the two—what happens when water leaves a glacier and travels hundreds of miles to the ocean?” she wondered.

A map shows the relationships between the study areas (Source: Lilijedahl et al, 2017/Geophysical Research Letters).

As her study area, Lilijedahl chose the Jarvis Creek watershed, which she called “accessible by Alaska standards,” meaning it runs parallel to the Richardson Highway and can be reached without a helicopter. The discontinuous permafrost that underlies this basin is characteristic of Interior Alaska, and Lilijedahl considers the region a proxy of other glaciated watersheds north of the Alaska range that lack road access.

To examine the relationship between glaciers, permafrost, and streams, Lilijedahl took a trip back to an older, colder time in Interior Alaska. She examined the Tanana River winter discharge record, which began in Fairbanks in the 1970s. It shows a steady increase in wintertime flow, as do similar records of streams across the Arctic and subarctic. She also analyzed satellite data and found that glacier coverage in the Tanana River watershed (of which Jarvis Creek is part) decreased by a remarkable 12 percent between 1950 and 2010.

Armed with this historical data, Lilijedahl and her team turned toward the present conditions of Jarvis Glacier and the Tanana River watershed. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, and the Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District worked together to measure how much ice and snow Jarvis Glacier lost over the summer. They placed two gauges in the outflow stream, 55 kilometers apart.

Lilijedahl’s team deployed instruments in spring to determine how much ice melted over the summer (Source: Salcha-Delta Soil and Water Conservation District).

“This is the only study that I’m aware of that put two stream gauges in front of a glacier,” USGS glaciologist Shad O’Neel told GlacierHub. This innovative method yielded interesting results: the stream lost roughly 46 percent of discharge between gauges. Such staggering loss is probably happening globally, according to O’Neel. “Around the world, glaciers turn into braided rivers with an abundance of sand and gravel that’s particularly good at soaking up water,” he said.

The scientists don’t yet know how long this water remains in the aquifer, but it clearly stays at depth long enough to be warmed by the tectonically active ground that underlies the Alaska Range. The 6 degree Celsius temperature of the groundwater is an “indicator that water has traveled pretty deep before coming back up. The deeper you go into earth, the warmer it gets,” said Lilijedahl.

From the aquifer, the water leaks into Jarvis Creek through the winter. “Everything is frozen except groundwater, so that’s definitely the source,” added O’Neel.

As glacial melt increases, the water melts the surrounding permafrost, enlarging the aquifer. Though this means that storage capacity is higher, input will ultimately decrease as the watershed’s glaciers shrink in a warming climate. Eventually, local wells may run dry, and Lilijedahl believes that lowland areas of Jarvis Creek and other similar rivers could eventually go dry in the summer.

The Richardson Highway, seen here just north of Delta Junction, parallels the Jarvis Creek watershed (Source: Rachel Kaplan).

Drying streams would threaten an animal important to Alaskan culture and economy—salmon. According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Group, “Salmon are responsible for the greatest economic impact (jobs, income, and total value) among all species in the Alaska seafood industry.” In 2013 and 2014, this industry generated an average of 5.9 million dollars of total economic activity. Salmon is also a crucial resource for people living subsistence lifestyles. “A lot of Arctic communities rely on chum salmon for food and pet food. Some species may do well, others won’t fare so well,” said O’Neel.

The health of salmon populations depends on a complex web of factors, including water temperatures in areas where eggs develop and stream levels where adult salmon migrate. Glacial melt and groundwater reserves shape both factors. Chum salmon eggs develop faster where warm water, between 3 and 6 degrees Celsius, bleeds into rivers. Salmon lay their eggs where the 6 degree Celsius groundwater upwells in the Tanana and Yukon rivers, according to Lilijedahl.

Glacial contributions to streamflow can also help support adult salmon. Glacial melt accounted for over 15 percent of Jarvis Creek’s annual discharge. For streams in the Alaska Range that aren’t glacially fed, said Lilijedahl, flow near mountains may yield to dry river beds a few miles downstream. “Imagine that if you’re a fish!” she said.

Salmon, such as the Sockeyes shown migrating here, are essential to Alaska’s economy and culture (Source: S. Huffman/NPS).

Thinking like a fish is key to many scientists and decision-makers in Alaska. The ancient migration habits of salmon have for millennia guided them between the ocean and their freshwater birthplaces, where they spawn before dying. Favorable conditions, such as water temperature and sufficient stream flow, constitute the difference between life and death, a poor year for Alaskan fisheries and a booming one.

The findings from this study will help in management of salmon populations. It will also help with understanding the impacts of climate change on a much broader scale. “In the past, we assumed all loss from glaciers ended up in ocean. But hey, wait—at least 30 percent in this system is lost in the aquifer. It introduces more complexities into this sea-level rise thing,” said O’Neel.

Faced with the complexities of a changing climate, myriad impacts of which are already shaping Arctic and subarctic landscapes, further collaborations between the hydrology and glaciology communities will be essential. “We’ve drawn a linkage between the physical systems of glaciers and the biological system of salmon. No one would have guessed that existed, not that long ago,” said O’Neel.

The Skagit Eagle Festival

The Bald Eagles of the Skagit River (source: Joshua Johnson/YouTube).

Floating down the Skagit River in Washington state in a small boat in the winter, you will likely spot many bald eagles along your trip. With wings spreading wide, the eagles soar freely in the sky, having recently returned from northern Canada and Alaska to the Skagit River to hunt migrating salmon.

Salmon at Skagit River (source: Chuck Hilliard/Flickr).
Salmon at Skagit River (source: Chuck Hilliard/Flickr).

The Skagit salmon depend on the glaciers of the Cascade Range to keep the waters of the river healthy and optimal for breeding. With an abundant salmon population, the eagle’s numbers have become so plentiful during the winter season that the region runs a month-long eagle-watching festival and a year-round interpretive center dedicated to the migrating birds.

During eagle-watching season in eastern Skagit County, which begins in January, tourists and birdwatchers arrive from all over the world to track the bald eagles. First started in 1987, the Skagit Eagle Festival is now a popular annual event. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in the small town of Concrete, it features many activities, including local music, floating tours, outdoor walks and educational programs, including a Salmon Run along the river.

Bald Eagle feeding on salmon (source Kenneth Kearney Flickr).
Bald Eagle feeding on salmon (source: Kenneth Kearney / Flickr).

During this year’s Skagit Eagle Festival, Native American celebrations also took place along the glacier-fed river, which remains very important to the local tribes. The Samish Indian Nation’s cultural outreach coordinator Rosie Cayou-James and native musician Peter Ali teamed up to organize a special “Native Weekend” at Marblemount Community Hall, featuring Native American history, storytelling and more. Local tribal elders and experts made educational presentations and performed native music at the event. Cayou-James, the main organizer of the weekend, told GlacierHub, “The eagle festival is a way to honor the ancestors. I cannot speak for the other tribes, but the Samish feel very connected to eagles and orcas.”

The Skagit River runs from high in the Cascades to Puget Sound, benefiting both the people and animals that live along the river. It provides a habitat for the five major species of Pacific salmon. Consequently, the river has the country’s largest wintering populations of eagles outside of Alaska. But the health of the eagle and fish populations in the Skagit River depends on the health of the glaciers of the region, which are suffering as a result of climate change.

Rosie Cayou-James (source: Rosie Cayou-James)
Rosie Cayou-James (source: Rosie Cayou-James).

“Climate change has damaged the natural flow of salmon, which is the main source of survival for resident eagles and orcas,” Cayou-James explained to GlacierHub. Samish history instructs members to protect the proper relationship to the land and its resources, including the Skagit River and surrounding glaciers, by teaching how the natural and spiritual worlds “cannot be separated,” according to the Samish Indian Nation website.

In total, there are around 375 glaciers in the Skagit River watershed, as reported by the Skagit Climate Science Consortium. The glaciers keep the flow of the Skagit River high throughout the summer. In addition, glacier water keeps nearby rivers at low temperatures throughout the year, making them optimal for salmon. The salmon rely on the cool glacier-fed water to survive. Without glaciers, stream temperatures become higher and keep climbing, becoming lethal to adult salmon.

Because glaciers are extremely sensitive to climate change, higher temperatures have increased rates of melting, reducing snow accumulation in the winter and changing the timing and duration of runoff. Worse even, the glaciers of the Cascades have not been able to fully rebuild themselves in the winter through accumulated snowfall. The glaciers of the Cascades have shrunk to half of what they were a century ago, according to the United States Geological Survey. In addition, the average winter freezing elevation in the Skagit has risen consistently since 1948, reducing the area which receives the snow that could replenish the glaciers.

An eagle scans the water near Sammish Island (source: Dex Horton Photography/ Flickr).
An eagle scans the water near Samish Island (source: Dex Horton Photography/ Flickr).

As climate change has put Pacific salmon in a difficult situation, the annual eagle festival and educational programs run by leaders like Cayou-James have become more important. Because of the glacier loss caused by increasing temperature, salmon habitat is dramatically changing. With a decrease of the salmon population, the eagles are also in danger. As more and more people get to know the eagles of the Skagit River through the Skagit Eagle Festival, there is hope that opportunities will arise for the people of the region to come together to combat climate change before it is too late.



Glaciers Help Explain Suffering Salmon Populations

The Nooksack Indians, who live in northwest Washington near the border of Canada, are fighting to save local salmon populations through a variety of innovative measures. Several species of salmon reside in the Nooksack River, which is comprised of three main forks that drain a large portion of the Cascade Range into Bellingham Bay. The salmon of the Nooksack are struggling as waters in the river warm. In response, the Nooksack Indians have turned to local glaciers to help understand and resolve the otherwise unrestricted impacts of climate change.

Map of Nooksack River. Photo Credit: AmericanRivers.org
Map of Nooksack River. (Source: AmericanRivers.org)

The waters of the Nooksack River have long housed several salmon species that have provided tribes like the Nooksack with sustenance and financial support. In recognition of the importance of fishing for Native American communities, fishing rights were granted to the local tribes through the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855. However, these fishing rights are threatened by the dwindling salmon populations struggling to keep up with the changing climate.

The endangerment of the local salmon populations aren’t just an economic loss for the Nooksack Indians, but a culturally significant loss as well. Oliver Grah, Water Resources Program Manager for the tribe, points out, “The Nooksack Indian Tribe is place-based. That is, tribal members are supposed to stay and live on or near their reservation.” Once the river ecosystems reach a specific tipping point, the salmon populations will begin to die off and the impacts on local tribes will be deeply felt.

In an effort to avert worrisome climate projections, the Nooksack Indian Tribe has been proactively implementing adaptive infrastructure and closely monitoring nearby glaciers crucial to healthy salmon numbers. It’s through thoughtful and long-term adaptation and monitoring plans that the Nooksack Tribe seeks to ease the environmental stressors that may critically alter salmon habitats.

Mountain Glacier, Photo Credit: Oliver Grah
Mountain glacier. (Source: Oliver Grah)

Pacific Northwest salmon populations fare best in periods having “high precipitation, deep mountain snowpack, cool air and water temperatures, cool coastal ocean temperatures, and abundant north-to-south ‘upwelling’ winds in spring and summer,” according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The Nooksack River relies heavily on the glacial runoff from both Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan located near the U.S.-Canada border. Summer glacial melt has historically helped keep rivers cool and ideal for salmon, according to Northern Arizona University. However, as places like Washington continue to see above average temperatures, the glacial snowpack has started to suffer. When the glaciers suffer, the salmon suffer.

Scientists working on mountain glacier, photo credit: Oliver Grah
Scientists working on mountain glacier. (Source: Oliver Grah)

With the current temperature trends, salmon populations will slowly wane to extinction in the Nooksack river, according to Grah. Grah states, “Ultimately, loss of glacier melt due to glacier recession will result in reduced stream flows and increased temperatures late in the summer when salmon are most vulnerable.”

Different salmon species breed during the late summer and early fall, according to the National Park Service. This process begins in freshwater when a salmon egg nest becomes fertilized and remains embedded in the river bottom during the winter months. In the spring, eggs hatch and remain close to the nest for several months. Once the salmon have matured and grown in size, they begin to migrate towards the ocean. Depending on salmon breed, the migration can take anywhere from 0-2 years. Once the salmon reach the mouth of the river, they feed to increase their size and chance of survival in the ocean. Salmon can remain in the ocean for up to 8 years before migrating back to their native streams for reproduction. But this entire process relies on a consistent habitat in the salmon’s native river. The Nooksack Tribe recognizes the importance of trying to maintain this original ecosystem despite challenges posed by climate change and reduced glacial runoff.

Scientist Oliver Grah collecting field data (Source: Oliver Grah)
Scientist Oliver Grah collecting project data (Source: Oliver Grah)

In an attempt to reduce vulnerability, the Nooksack’s adaptation measures have sought to create a landscape that will help cool the river. These efforts include lining the rivers with trees to shade exposed waters from abundant sunlight. Additionally, the tribe has been creating log jams, which will help provide sites of colder water for the fish. This habitat restoration program, with its emphasis on the effects of climate change, offers “a good chance that the tribe can improve the chance of salmon survival in the face of climate change,” according to Grah.

Photo Credit: Oliver Grah
River data collection. (Source: Oliver Grah)

While these adaptation efforts won’t specifically address the issue of glacial recession, they will help to maintain the local river ecosystem. The Nooksack have also worked to set up a local glacier monitoring program, recognizing the importance of glaciers on the health of the salmon.

Grah, a leading glacier expert, is part of the team monitoring the local glaciers in northwest Washington for the tribe. Most of the glacier runoff that empties into the Nooksack river comes from the glaciers located on Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. According to the University of Oregon’s Tribal Climate Project, “On Mt. Baker alone, at least eight glaciers feed the watershed. There are approximately 148 glaciers, glacierets, and perennial snowfields with a combined area of 40,828,294 m2 (15.76 mi2 ) that drain into the Nooksack River.”

Changes in Washington climate patterns have the ability to drastically impact the glacial landscape of the Northern Cascades. Given the magnitude of the runoff into the Nooksack River, slight deviations from the norm could mean massive changes for the river.

In an attempt to try and quantify these potential changes, the Nooksack tribe has been consistently recording snow depth, melt rates, stream temperatures and runoff. This field data is used to create scientific models that help show the speed and severity of glacial melt. These models take the field data and visually demonstrate the interconnections of different variables, identifying current and future climate trends. Monitoring and striving for healthy glaciers will ensure the Nooksack Tribe can continue to embrace its deep-rooted history in the Pacific Northwest.

With the combined adaptation and research efforts, the Nooksack Tribe understands the importance of being prepared and well-informed. Through collaborations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nooksack Tribe remains focused on preserving historical aspects of their culture for future generations. It’s this awareness and environmental dedication expressed by the Nooksack Tribe that exemplifies how to mindfully manage the impacts of climate change in order to preserve aspects of all culture, not just one’s own.

Washington State Tribes Block Coal Terminal

An application to build the largest coal port ever proposed in North America was yet again blocked earlier this month due to concerns that the terminal would have infringed on treaty-reserved fishing rights of local tribal communities in the northern Puget Sound.

Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources June 6 blockage of the coal port was the second of two rejected applications to build a coal export terminal on the Lummi Nation’s aquatic territory. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected the first permit last May.

Chairman Clifford Cultee and Hereditary Chief Bill James at a protest
Then-Lummi Nation Chairman Clifford Cultee, left, and Hereditary Chief Bill James, right, speak at a 2012 protest against the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point. (Photo:Philip A. Dwyer, the Bellingham Herald)

The two permit rejections end a multi-year long struggle dating back to 2012 for several tribes’ environmental groups, the city of Seattle, and several smaller cities, in their fight to stop the coal port.

Both agencies denied SSA Marine’s permit application for Cherry Point due to compelling evidence from Washington State’s Department of Ecology that the terminal’s effect on tribal fishing rights would exceed the low threshold of acceptable damage allowed under treaty-reserved fishing areas of five Washington tribes.

The port would have brought what Daryl Williams, environmental liaison for the Tulalip Tribes, described as the largest cargo ships coming into the Puget Sound.

“With that much momentum, it takes them six miles to stop from when they start to slow down,” he said in a phone interview with GlacierHub.

The State’s Department of Ecology indicated that increased large ship traffic would likely interfere with the activities of tribal fishermen in the area.

Tulalip canoes
One of the three Tulalip canoes, which are used for the annual Salmon Ceremony and Canoe Journey, on the Tulalip Bay. (Photo:Andrew Gobin, Tulalip News)

“[Tulalip] fishermen are primarily drift gillnet fishers, so they set out their net and drift with the currents. Any obstacle in the way limits the amount of area they can fish in,” he explained.

When the Department of Ecology released a vessel traffic study that showed full operation of the proposed terminal would cause 76 percent more disruption to fishing, Daryl Williams knew that Cherry Point’s chances of survival were slim.

Regarding the final decision, he said he is “happy to see a federal agency actually upholding treaty rights for a change.” But, he added, “I don’t think they really had a choice.”

The decision elicited a sigh of relief from many tribal communities along the Puget Sound when they learned that their fishing rights would remain intact. Resistance against the port elicited teamwork between neighboring Tribes in their shared quest to stop the port.

Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, told the Seattle Times, “We have the same amount of commitment to treaty rights protection. We are a team and we are working with [other tribes]”

However, climate change still threatens the existence and health of these treasured water and fishing sources. Scientists have estimated that the Puget Sound will experience sea level rise ranging from 8 to 55 centimeters by 2050. Sea level rise, as well as increased temperatures, hold the potential to irrevocably damage local water sources and coastlines, and therefore the fishing populations that Northwestern tribes rely on.

Glacier Peak
Glacier Peak contains more than a dozen glaciers whose melt water feed into the Skagit and Snohomish watersheds. (Photo:Snohomish County Government)

Some of the Tulalip’s more local water sources in the Skykomish and Stillaguamish watersheds are fed by smaller glaciers in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Park. Daryl’s brother, Terry Williams, commissioner of the Treaty Rights Office for the Tulalip Tribes, estimates that the smaller glaciers feeding the Skyhomish, Stillaguamish and Snoqualmie watersheds have mostly disappeared, and that the larger glaciers in these areas are likely more than 50 percent gone.

Rapid glacial melt not only increases river flow, but also affects the time at which flows peak. Terry estimated that in recent years, local spring flows have arrived two to three months earlier. With increased flows, the area is experiencing increased sedimentation, which leads to landslides and impacts the fish population by either burying the fish or washing them out in heavy rains.

These local ecosystem changes worsen the stability of water sources that the Tulalip Tribe depends on for fish, especially the salmon population.

Fishing on the Quileute Indian Reservation
Native American fishers hauling a net onto a beach in Washington State
(Photo: IMLS Digital Collections and Content)

“Survival rates [of our salmon population] have been dropping off dramatically,” Terry Williams said. In an interview for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals Newsletter, he estimated that the Tribes have lost 90% of their salmon population in recent years.

He told GlacierHub that the tribe has also seen an increase of intense floods both from glacial lakes and increased precipitation, as well as changes in storm seasons.

“We know that as climate change and sea level continues to rise, that sea level rise is going to have an impact on our shoreline and create more intense rain events in the fall and spring,” he said.

Terry Williams notes that waste and water pollution has also harmed their local water sources and the fish populations.

He explained: “The water in the Puget sound isn’t the healthiest — it’s shaped like a bathtub, so the water tends to circulate rather than flush. So over the years, all the pollutants that have entered the Puget Sound have stayed at the bottom, or in the water column.”

While the proposed coal port at Cherry Point has been thwarted, it appears that fossil fuel sources will continue to affect the natural resources of the region. The Tulalip Tribe, however, has been proactive in its adaptation plans.

As Environmental Liaison for the Tulalip Tribes, Daryl Williams dedicates time to a variety of environmental issues. However, he says that he’s been spending more and more time in recent years on climate change and the tribe’s adaptation plan.

For one, he says that the tribe is in the “early stages” of developing Climate Impacts Assessments for both its reservation and whole fishing area. Already, he’s concerned about sea level rise, saltwater intrusion into coastal well systems, and erosion along the Sound that may harm the Tribe’s coasts and coastline property.

In determining the impacts the tribe may face in the not-so-distant future, the urgency to mitigate and adapt to climate change is clear. The tribe has taken on a number of projects to increase its energy efficiency and decrease its energy consumption, particularly because of the local utility’s large reliance on hydropower, which, yes, affects the tribe’s fish population.

“The tribe’s been trying to cut down on demand for hydropower in the Columbia river system because those dams have a major impact on salmon in that river,” he said.

New Tulalip Administration Building
The newly constructed Tulalip Administration Building. (Photo: D8 Aluminum)

The tribe has also pursued other efficiency and clean energy projects: its new Tulalip Administration Building, containing a ground-coupled heat pump and built-in raingardens, was designed in 2009 to be energy efficient and ecologically sustainable. The tribe has also partnered with a nearby dairy farmer to capture and burn manure to create electricity. In addition to the tribe’s local adaptation planning, Williams added that the Tulalip Tribes have also been involved at the national level with the President’s Climate Action Plan.  

Although Cherry Point appears to no longer be on the table, the Tulalip Tribes are keenly aware that climate change simultaneously poses an existential threat to their lands and natural resources. As such, in order to best preserve their land, the Tribes are demonstrating a long-term commitment to climate change mitigation and adaptation.