The capital of Alaska is crowded with tourists wondering what will happen as the magnificent glacier recedes

The capital of Alaska is crowded with tourists wondering what will happen as the magnificent glacier recedes

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Thousands of tourists daily flock to the boardwalk in Alaska’s capital from cruise ships towering over downtown. Vendors hawk flights on the beach and rows of buses ready to whisk visitors away, as many head to the region’s crown jewel: the Mendenhall Glacier.

A craggy expanse of grey, white and blue, Glacier is dipped by sightseeing helicopters and attracts visitors by kayak, canoe, and foot. Many come to see the glacier and other wonders of Juno, as the city’s immediate concern is how to manage it all as expected this year. Some residents flee to quieter locales during the summer, and a deal between the city and the cruise industry will limit the number of ships arriving next year.

But climate change is melting the Mendenhall glacier. It’s declining so fast that by 2050, it may no longer be visible from the visitor center once it loomed outside.

This led to another question that Juno was only now beginning to ponder: What happens next?

“We need to think about our glaciers and be able to see glaciers as they recede,” said Alexandra Pearce, the city’s director of tourism. She said there is also a need to focus on reducing environmental impacts. “People come to Alaska to see what they consider to be a pristine environment and it is our responsibility to preserve that for residents and visitors.”

The glacier empties from the rocky terrain between the mountains into a lake dotted with stray icebergs. Its face slipped off eight football fields between 2007 and 2021, estimates by researchers from the University of Alaska Southeast. Trail signs commemorate the glacier’s backwards walk, showing where the ice once was. A thicket of vegetation grew in its wake.

Iran Hood, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Alaska in Southeast, said that while the megablocks smashed, most of the ice loss came from thinning caused by warming. Mendenhall has now largely receded from the lake that bears its name.

Scientists are trying to understand what the changes might mean for the ecosystem, including the salmon’s habitat.

There are doubts about tourism, too.

Most people enjoy the glacier from the trails across Lake Mendenhall near the visitor center. Caves of dizzying blues that drew crowds several years ago have collapsed, and now stand pools of water where one could once step from rock onto ice.

Manoj Pillai, a cruise ship worker from India, snapped pictures of a popular view on a recent day off.

“If the glacier is so beautiful now, what would it be like, say, 10 or 20 years ago? I just imagine it,” he said.

Officials in Tongass National Forest, under which the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area lies, are preparing for more visitors over the next 30 years even as they contemplate a future when the glacier slips off the unofficial landscape.

The agency proposes new trails, parking areas, an additional visitor center and cabins for general use at a lakeside campground. Researchers don’t expect the glacier to disappear completely for at least a century.

We’ve already talked about, ‘Is it worth investing in facilities if the glacier disappears from view?’ “

A resounding waterfall is a popular spot for selfies, salmon runs, black bears, and trails can continue to draw tourists when the glacier is not visible from the visitor center, he said, but “the glacier is the biggest attraction.”

About 700,000 people are expected to visit this year, and about a million are expected to visit by 2050.

Other sites offer a cautionary tale. Annual visitation peaked in the 1990s at about 400,000 to Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, southeast Anchorage, with Portage Glacier serving as the draw. Now, on clear days, a piece of the glacier is still visible from the center, which was visited by about 30,000 people last year, said Brandon Riley, a spokesman for Chugach National Forest, which manages the site. He said officials were discussing the center’s future.

Riley said, “Where do we go with the Begich Visitor Center, Boggs? How do we make it relevant as we move forward when the original reason for putting it there just doesn’t fit anymore?”

At Mendenhall, rangers talk to visitors about climate change. They aim to “raise astonishment and awe but also to inspire hope and action,” said Laura Bouchet, Juno’s deputy forest ranger.

after Epidemic stunting seasonsAbout 1.6 million cruise ship passengers are expected to arrive in Juneau this year, during a season that runs from April through October.

Nestled in a rainforest, the city is one stop on generally week-long cruises to Alaska starting in Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia. Tourists can leave the docks and climb up the side of the mountain in a matter of minutes via the famous tramway, see bald eagles on lampposts and enjoy the vibrant Alaska Native arts community.

On the busiest days, some 20,000 people, two-thirds of the city’s population, pour out of the boats.

City leaders and major cruise lines have agreed to a daily limit of five ships for the next year. But critics worry that congestion will not be eased if ships continue to expand. Some residents prefer one day a week without ships. As many as seven ships arrived a day this year.

Juneau Tours and Whale Watch is one of about two dozen companies that have permits for services such as transport or glacier guiding. Serene Hutchinson, the company’s general manager, said demand was so high that she came close to allocating it mid-season. She said the shuttle service to the glacier had to be suspended, but her business still offers limited tours that include the glacier.

Other bus operators have reached their limits, and tourism officials are encouraging visitors to see other sites or get to the glacier by various means.

Hutchinson, who doesn’t worry about Juneau losing its shine as the glacier recedes, said visitation restrictions could benefit tour companies by improving the experience rather than drawing tourists to the glacier.

She said, “Alaska does the work for us, right? All we have to do is just get out of the way and let people look around and smell and breathe.”

Pierce, Juneau’s director of tourism, said discussions are just beginning about what a sustainable tourism industry should look like in Southeast Alaska.

In Sitka, home to a dormant volcano, the number of cruise passengers the day before this summer exceeded the city’s 8,400 residents, irritating businesses, driving down Internet speeds and leading officials to question how much overtourism is.

Juno plans to conduct a survey that can guide future growth, such as building itineraries for tourism companies.

Kerry Kirkpatrick, a Juneau resident of nearly 30 years, remembers when Mendenhall’s face was “long across the water and high above our heads.” She called the glacier a national treasure for its accessibility and noted the irony of carbon-emitting helicopters and cruise ships chasing a melting glacier. She is concerned that the current level of tourism is not sustainable.

As Mendenhall recedes, she said, plants and animals will need time to adjust.

So are humans.

“There are a lot of people on this planet who want to do the same things,” Kirkpatrick said. “You don’t want to be the one who closes the door and says, you know, ‘I’m the last one in and you can’t get in.'” But we must have the power to say, “No, no more.”

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