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Warming may both hurt and help critical tourism business in Southeast Alaska

Pat Forgey
US Forest Service officials announced Friday, July 18, 2014, that the ceiling of a popular Mendenhall Glacier ice cave collapsed near the entry. Becky Bohrer

Global warming could threaten Alaska's status as one of the nation's most desirable tourist destinations, warn scientists studying climate change.

"Biodiversity changes, particularly if they relate to charismatic wildlife -- everybody talks about polar bears, and whales and seals in the marine environment. Anything that impacts those negatively runs the risk of sort of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs," said Peter Convey, polar ecologist with the British Antarctic Survey.

Convey and Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Director John Neary spoke with reporters in a teleconference Tuesday, discussing the International Panel on Climate Change's June report on tourism impacts. It was organized by the Climate Change Campaign, a joint effort by several environmental groups to call attention to the issue.  

In Juneau, at the U.S. Forest Service's glacier visitor center, Neary is worried about the impact of warming on one of the state's top attractions for out-of-state visitors.

The Mendenhall Glacier has been retreating since the end of the Little Ice Age 200 years ago but lately that loss has accelerated, Neary said.

"We have all watched it retreating up the valley behind the lake, wondering exactly what's going to happen when it disappears from view," he said.

A similar retreat by Portage Glacier near Girdwood eventually left the ice out of sight, prompting a decrease in visitors.

A less exciting trip for future visitors might mean less willingness by tourist companies and others to invest in new facilities and infrastructure, he said.

A more immediate concern at Mendenhall is the glacier pulling back out of the lake, he said.

"We're probably going to see icebergs disappear from the lake in the next few years," Neary said.

The study examined threats ranging from melting permafrost damaging infrastructure to invasive species to shorter seasons for ski resorts.

But the scientists did find possible opportunities too.

The summer cruise season, which brings most tourists to Alaska, may be extended by weeks due to warmer weather, Convey said.

"The visitor season itself is lengthening as spring warms up," Neary said. "The month of May is becoming a much more attractive month to visit."

And the retreating glacier has also opened up new habitat, such as the center's Steep Creek, which developed a thriving salmon run. Both the salmon and the black bears that come to feed on them are popular tourist draws.

And, somewhat ironically, global warming may bring a short-lived boom in "last chance" tourism, visitors who want to see threatened attractions before they're gone, Convey said. But that's likely to be a short-lived "blip," he said.

For many visitors, an Alaska cruise and trip to the Mendenhall Glacier is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Neary said he gets to watch visitors' faces as they walk up the path to see the glacier.

"They're on their bucket list trip to see this place,” he said. “Their jaw drops, because it's stunningly beautiful."

But another concern is the growing realization of the impact of tourism itself on the environment.

"We have people coming on cruise ships that are belching emissions, then they get on diesel buses that are belching emissions, and they get off the bus and they're not making the connection between everything they've done and what they see before them. In other words, the effect of increased carbon in our atmosphere as it causes warming and retreating glaciers," Neary said.

The Forest Service is now examining ways to make the visitor center more eco-friendly. One possibility: electric buses to carry 450,000 visitors from cruise ships to the glacier every year.  

Contact Pat Forgey at pat@alaskadispatch.com.