Opinions

OPINION: The degradation of a wild and scenic river in Alaska’s Brooks Range

Irontok

The Salmon River, possibly the most famous waterway in Arctic Alaska, was the opening subject of John McPhee’s classic, “Coming into the Country.” McPhee and his companions — a combination of state and federal employees — floated the Salmon in 1975 to assess its suitability for Wild and Scenic status, a designation granted to rivers that possess “outstandingly remarkable value” and have mechanisms that provide for their long-term protection.

Descending the river in a leaky kayak named “Snake Eyes,” McPhee found sweeping views of mountains, tundra and forest, a rich run of chum salmon and “the clearest, purest water I have ever seen flowing over rocks.” The paddlers spent much of their time catching the abundant Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden that follow the salmon upstream. It was a quintessential Alaskan wilderness trip that cemented the Salmon’s Wild and Scenic status. The Salmon received further protection during the formation of Kobuk Valley National Park as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980.

Unfortunately, the Salmon River is not what it once was. Routine National Park Service monitoring and local bush pilot observations indicate the Salmon was running clear as recently as the fall of 2018. During the summer of 2019, the gin-clear waters of the Salmon turned distinctly orange-green. Three summers have now passed and, sadly, the Salmon remains severely discolored, with orange stains on the banks and its once outstanding fish habitat degraded.

There is no single source of the turbid orange waters. The river runs clear from its mountain headwaters to Kanaktok Creek, which is the first but not the worst of the orange-colored tributaries. Just downstream from Kanaktok is an unnamed creek that we dubbed “Irontok,” for its bright orange color. The last 55 river miles are characterized by alternating clear and orange tributaries, punctuated by one grotesquely orange stream that dumps its contents into the Salmon just above its confluence with the Kobuk. In addition to the orange tributaries, there are multiple orange seeps on slopes above the middle river that are surrounded by dead vegetation, including mature spruce trees. The Salmon remains wild, but its scenic attributes are degraded and the health of the ecosystem that it supports is in question.

It would be one thing if it were just the Salmon. Unfortunately, orange streams have proliferated across the Brooks Range since 2019. Our collective observations have identified more than 30 waterways west of the Dalton Highway that are now affected. Preliminary measurements in a headwater stream near the Salmon showed that juvenile fish abundance declined dramatically during the transition from clear to orange. Deterioration of habitat quality for fish may, in turn, affect birds and mammals that depend on the seasonal influx of high-quality food resources.

A large and interdisciplinary group of scientists is actively working to establish the causes and consequences of these dramatic and concerning changes. However, the widespread nature points to changes in climate as the ultimate cause. And there are well-known mechanisms by which thawing of permafrost could expose and mobilize iron and other toxins that have long been entombed in ice. A key question, of course, is whether the orange stream phenomenon represents a temporary state or a more permanent shift in the water quality and health of these formerly pristine Arctic ecosystems. For the time being, our observations of the Salmon and orange streams across the Brooks Range point to the inadvertent opening of a Pandora’s box, with potentially serious and perhaps far-reaching consequences for fish, wildlife and the people who depend on them.

Patrick Sullivan is interim director of the Environment and Natural Resources Institute at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He floated the Salmon in 2019 and 2022, while researching vegetation change, and collected numerous water samples for the National Park Service and United States Geological Survey.

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Jonathan O’Donnell is an ecologist with the Arctic Network of the National Park Service. He is a principal investigator on a collaborative project with the United States Geological Survey aimed at understanding the causes and consequences of the Brooks Range orange stream phenomenon.

Roman Dial is a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University. He traveled extensively throughout the Brooks Range by foot and packraft from 2016 through 2022, collecting observations of vegetation change and orange streams from Canada to the Chukchi Sea, visiting the Salmon by packraft in 2016 and by foot in 2022.

Rebecca Hewitt is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Amherst College. She floated the Salmon during the fall of 2019 while studying vegetation change.

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