President Obama in Alaska

Highlighted by Obama visit, Seward is a microcosm of climate change

SEWARD -- If Alaska is on the "leading edge" of global climate change, as President Obama puts it, then that edge is particularly sharp in the picturesque port town of Seward, which hosted him on Tuesday.

The town of about 2,750 people is surrounded by shrinking glaciers, warming and acidifying marine waters and increasingly flammable forests, all changes that climate scientists say are being sped by carbon emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Exit Glacier, a retreating river of ice in Kenai Fjords National Park that Obama visited in front of a bank of news cameras, is only part of the story. The entire high-altitude 700-square-mile Harding Icefield to which it is connected are big contributors to the melt that is bringing up sea levels.

The icefield, the largest located entirely in the United States, and the glaciers like Exit that spill off of it, are some of the biggest ice-losers in Alaska, according to a recent study by University of Alaska Fairbanks, University of Washington and U.S. Geological Survey scientists. The Seward ice masses are among the land glaciers that account for 94 percent of the estimated 75 billion tons of annual Alaska ice melt that is pouring into the ocean, making them far bigger contributors than the calving tidewater glaciers.

The forests edging those glaciers are transforming, due to warmer temperatures, according to a summary report prepared by the National Park Service about climate impacts in Kenai Fjords.That is part of a shift across the entire Kenai Peninsula, where wooded regions increased in area from the middle of the 20th century to its end, while open and watery habitat shrank. Shrubs are expanding up the mountain slopes, and nearly 40 percent of the land that was ice covered in the 1950s is now colonized by shrubs, according to the Park Service.

In the turquoise waters of Resurrection Bay and, farther out, the Gulf of Alaska, scientists last summer recorded the highest temperatures since the University of Alaska Fairbanks monitoring program began 17 years ago. The 2015 monitoring cruise is scheduled to start next week and some similar readings are expected, as the warmer-than-normal conditions have persisted through this year.

Those waters are changing chemically, becoming more acidic as atmospheric carbon is absorbed, creating new threats to the commercial and sport fisheries that are mainstays of the local economy. A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that local marine conditions are changing so fast that in 25 years, Seward's Alutiiq Pride shellfish hatchery is expected to need some type of treatment system to modify the water flowing in from the bay to make sure that it is not too acidic to allow the calcium-needing shellfish to grow.


But if Seward is a microcosm of Alaska's climate-change and acidification, it is also a hotbed of action to address those changes.

Researchers from UAF, the National Park Service, NOAA and other organizations are well-established in Seward.

The nonprofit Alaska SeaLife Center, a major regional tourist attraction, is also a research institution that conducts studies into the changing marine conditions and prepares for the problems that changes might bring.

It is the only marine-mammal rehabilitation center in Alaska, taking in abandoned and distressed marine animals like two ice seals sent this summer from the Northwest Alaska communities of Stebbins and Nome. And in its rehabilitation facilities, said center president Tara Riemer, the SeaLife Center has amassed some portable pens and even pools that can be used to rescue injured or oiled animals. "You could actually keep a polar bear cub in one," Riemer said. It might be a fitting role for an institution that was built on the site of a shoreline rescue center that cleaned oiled otters and other animals during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

The center is also one of the Seward institutions using renewable energy innovations -- in its case, a pumping system that circulates seawater and removes the warmth from it. "Right now, we're heating our entire building off of that water out there," Riemer said, pointing to the bay. The city of Seward is working on a plan to adopt such a system for nearby public buildings in downtown Seward, she said.

Other organizations, public and private, have adopted renewable-energy technologies as well. Solar panels bring energy to remote camps in Kenai Fjords National Park, and one of the private wilderness lodges located near the park touts as a major attraction its use of solar and wind power.

Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen was a reporter for Alaska Dispatch News.