A melting Alaska draws visitors

Warming five times faster than the rest of the world, the state is seeing ecotourism change with the climate.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Tourists still flock to Alaska to see Mount McKinley and ice caves, but a small and steady stream of visitors now head to the last frontier to see thawing tundra, crumbling glaciers, and ailing forests.

Take Shishmaref, an Inupiat Eskimo village on the state's remote northwest coast. Known for exquisite ivory carvings and high-quality seal oil, it lures travelers these days because of its precarious perch on melting land. When a team of scientists and religious leaders arrived in August, a highlight of the tour was viewing a house that had tumbled over the edge of the beach bluff; A storm had cut 20 feet from the shoreline previously held fast by frozen permafrost and sea-ice buildup.

"To many of us, Alaska is the distant early-warming system for the future of climate change," says Eric Chivian, of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, which organized the trip.

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Because Alaska is heating up more than five times faster than the world as a whole, scientists, congressmen, foreign dignitaries, and the curious are coming to see the effects of global warming firsthand. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana came here recently to hold a field hearing on the effects of warming on native villages. Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich led a tour for mayors from the lower 48 last year. Some tourists say they come to see Alaska before some of its most striking features disappear.

This summer, a pair of professional surfers from Hawaii came to have themselves filmed riding the huge waves created by crashing chunks of ice falling off of Child's Glacier near the Prince William Sound town of Cordova. "It was the heaviest rush just sitting out there, dwarfed by this enormous glacier face, waiting for the whole thing to crash down in front of us and hoping we'd survive it when it did," surfer Garrett McNamara reported on his Web page.

In some cases, such trips are transformational. Evangelist Harry Jackson says this summer's Harvard tour, especially the visit to Shishmaref, converted him from a global-warming skeptic to a believer.

"This has immediate consequences," says Mr. Jackson, senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Maryland. "That perspective you don't get on the East Coast. "

While most tourists don't come to Alaska to see the effects of global warming – cruises and sports fishing are still much bigger draws– the topic is not far from the minds of many visitors.

"There is that sense that Alaska's going to change because [change] is inevitable, so let's see it before it changes," says Kirk Hoessle, owner of Alaska Wildland Adventures. Clients become more aware of the warming impacts in Alaska when they see the vast stretches of beetle-killed trees on the Kenai Peninsula or learn about the recent spate of lightning-strike fires that are uncharacteristic for the region, he says.

At Kenai Fjords National Park, rangers and interpreters have been briefed on global warming and the way the changing climate is affecting the local glaciers and ecology for years. "We find it's a very common question that tourists have," says park superintendent Jeff Mow.

Exit Glacier, for example, is an accessible river of ancient blue ice that is rapidly retreating from the viewing stations and hiking trails at its tidewater terminus. Tourists, especially those making return trips to Exit Glacier, see the shrinking glacier as evidence of Alaska's warming, he says. "We get a lot of people visiting who say, 'What happened to it?' " Mr. Mow says.

Plenty of VIPs make the trek to Exit Glacier, including former President Jimmy Carter, presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, and even legislators from the Japanese Diet, Mow says.

Aside from being a draw, the climate question can also be a touchy subject at the park. One staff member was verbally attacked by an out-of-state tourist while discussing climate change during a tour, Mow adds.

Warming has changed the focus of the Begich-Boggs Visitors Center here at Portage Glacier, a popular attraction for visitors to the Chugach National Forest. In the 1980s, the glacier extended well into the lake, filling the center's plate-glass windows with close-up views of ancient blue ice. Now, its rapid retreat has inspired Forest Service managers to change the facility's focus, says Lezlie Murray, manager of the center. "We are trying to show them the breadth of the forest. And that includes glaciers still, but it also includes all of the things that live and breathe in the forest."

Also dramatic are the impacts of warming on people who live off the land and the sea, mostly Alaska natives whose cultures are tied to their harvests of wild foods.

Back in Shishmaref, members of the Harvard tour meet the cousins of Norman Charlie Kokeak, a young hunter who fell through the ice earlier in the summer and drowned, despite extensive knowledge and instruction from the elders about safe ice travel.

"[H]e was a metaphor of the death of the next generation," says Peter Heltzel, a professor at the New York Theological Seminary. "I saw that the erosion of that island is the erosion of a cultural identity."

The village, like others in Alaska, is planning to move to firmer ground inland. Progress of the ambitious relocation has stalled because of the high cost – estimated variously at $100 million to $400 million – and bureaucratic inertia. Senator Landrieu says she hopes some nongovernmental organization and charities will be able to cover some of the costs and cut through some of the federal red tape. "If these villages and cultures have existed for thousands of years and have managed, they shouldn't come to an abrupt end because of the federal government and the [US Army] Corps of Engineers."

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