From 2014-2016, the Gulf of Alaska was hit by The Blob. A large mass of water that sat at a consistent record-high ocean temperature. A number of marine species saw a large population decline.
Humpbacks in Glacier Bay have been studied extensively since 1973. Individual whales are documented and identified by their dorsal fins and flukes. Each are unique. 2013 saw a return of 160 humpbacks to Glacier Bay, which was a record number since recording began. In 2014, the year the blob first showed itself, only 40 returned to The Bay. Some humpbacks have been returning to Glacier Bay for over 40 years.
The humpback population started to recover in Glacier Bay 2020. There were eleven calves in The Bay this year, where there were none for some of the blob years.
A curious side note: It has been reported that the humpbacks have thoroughly enjoyed having the waters of Glacier Bay almost to themselves. Or, at least without cruise ships. It has been documented that the whales have been much more vocal with each other with the absence of the large cruise ships.
No offense to anyone out there, but I am with the whales on this one. The lack of tourists has been peaceful.
The southwestern village of Kwigillingok, which lies on the Bering Sea coast, within the vast Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, is seeing some of the worst flooding anyone can remember. Flooding is not rare at Kwigillingok, but the severity of Friday’s high tide has reached a new threshold.
Buildings within the village are on pilings, so water did not breach any structures, but time does not appear to be on the village’s side.
The melting permafrost is causing land subsidence, which has made the village very susceptible to flooding, especially at high tide. The flooding then speeds up the melting of the permafrost even more, causing a harsh cycle.
Several homes are slated to be moved due to the threat of erosion, but the entire village is now contemplating a move to higher ground.
National Park Week, Day VI: Everglades National Park
The Everglades may be the only National Park I’ve had to fast talk my way into. They were having wildfires when I drove down from Tampa one spring. I had seen the warning signs, but kept going until I came to a roadblock. Off to my left, I could see some smoldering, but as far as wildfires go, it looked pretty tame. The ranger hemmed and hawed at me, but I persisted. Eventually I said, “Look, I’m from Alaska, we deal with this all the time, and that doesn’t look like Armageddon out there.” The ranger said I could go forward, but I had to commit to staying at Flamingo for several days, and not even drive back to the roadblock. I made the deal, and released the clutch.
It was dry, and it was hot during the day, and the mosquitoes still gave Alaska a run for the money. It was hard not to be impressed by the little bloodsuckers tenacity. I was also impressed by the vultures. It isn’t every day you see a string of them with their wings fully extended drying in the sun, when you climb out of the tent in the morning.
Everglades National Park covers 1,508,976 acres, which is 20% of the size of Florida’s original Everglades. It is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, and the largest wilderness of any type east of the Mississippi River, and the third largest National Park in the Lower 48.
The Everglades were a vast network of wetlands, interspersed with forests. Water flowed from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades and into Florida Bay. It was the first Park created to protect a fragile ecosystem.
I did a lot of hiking during my time in this incredibly unique Park. Many trails led me out to the Gulf Coast, with the final section through the dense mangrove forests.
Another incredible way to see the Everglades would be the Canoe & Kayak Trails through the Park. There are numerous water trails for either a canoe or kayak, and trips can be fully guided or self-guided. Many campsites are on raised platforms. Any return trip to the Everglades for me, would have to include some of the water trails.
For wildlife, I mostly saw all sorts of birds, from great blue herons and white ibis, to osprey and brown pelicans. Over 360 species of birds have been seen in the Everglades. I was surprised to learn that the black vulture was a bit of a vandal. It seems that greeting people when they climb out of their tent in the morning was not their official duty in the Park. It turns out that they enjoy tearing the rubber off of vehicles. I’m not totally unfamiliar with the habit, as I’ve seen ravens steal wiper blade rubber, but the vultures seemed to be particularly vengeful. To the point, that people were actually renting blue tarps and bungee cords to deter the vultures. I chose not to wrap the car with a blue tarp, and honestly had no trouble. They did eyeball the Nissan from a distance, which I could live with.
The Everglades has two distinct seasons: The Dry Season, which is roughly November to March, and the Wet Season which runs April to November. I was told that the Wet Season can be buggy, and I was there before the Wet Season began, and I can tell you that it was quite buggy once the sun started to set.
Each year brings over one million visitors to Everglades National Park.
National Park Week, Day IV; Today’s Park Theme: Transformation Tuesday
Kenai Fjords: Where Mountains, Ice and Ocean meet.
Kenai Fjords was first designated a National Monument in 1978. With the passage of ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, Kenai Fjords officially became a National Park.
Kenai Fjords encompasses 669,984 acres, which includes the massive Harding Icefield, which is the source of at least 38 glaciers.
Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield can be reached from the community of Seward. It’s a short drive from town to the visitor center and trail head. The short and relatively easy trail takes one to the foot of the glacier. Exit is retreating at a pretty good clip, and is now losing ice during all seasons.
The Harding Icefield covers over 700 square miles, and that does NOT include the 38-40 glaciers that spawn from it. The hike past Exit Glacier to the icefield can be described as strenuous, but the view, when clear, is absolutely amazing.
Harding Icefield is one of four remaining in the United States, and the largest that is contained completely within the country. It receives, on average, 400 inches of snow each year.
Much of the Park is only accessible by water, and sea kayaking is a very popular activity. There are many tidewater glaciers that can be reached from Seward.
Two glaciers that I have visited from Seward are: Bear, which is the longest glacier in the Park, and Aialik Glacier, which is a bit more impressive from the water. Bear has receded to the point, that a lake now exists between the ocean and the glacier. The lake is often filled with small icebergs, which makes kayaking interesting. Aialik is a giant ice wall from the water’s surface.
Kenai Fjords National Park received 321,596 visitors in 2018. It is the fourth most visited Park in Alaska, and the closest to the city of Anchorage.
This past weekend, a surprisingly large section of open water showed itself on The Pond. A steady stream of bubbles came up to the water’s surface. The bubbles were methane escaping the mud below.
The next morning, the temp at the cabin was -27F, so at ice level it was easily -30F. Much of the open area had frozen over, but a neat circular hole remained in the ice. From the hole, a trail led off across the pond’s snowy surface. One of the resident beavers had come out to explore the area. It followed all of the trails we made in the snow the previous day, and then it went off on its own, exploring at its leisure.
There were several times, where the trail dipped below the snow, and the beaver tunneled for quite a distance, before popping up again to the surface. I had never seen where a beaver had gone swimming in the snow. Most of these tunnels were near the cat tail stands, but not all.
The day after I followed the beaver trail, the open water had completely closed over. The methane is the clear culprit in the open water, especially such a large opening. As the bubbles rise to the surface, the ice thins due to the movement of the water. Most of the methane pocket locations are known, and those areas are avoided when anyone traverses The Pond. We are guessing that this opening was caused by a large, unknown pocket, that gave way. The bubbles that we watched coming up were in three distinct trails, but we wondered if the beaver had helped things along. Surely, the beaver knew about the location of the thinning ice, and kept one section open longer than the rest. Did their movement below, open up the large section we found? The beaver is an intriguing species of rodent.
I was invited earlier in the week to attend an online screening of the new documentary Frozen Obsession. For 18 days, a research crew ventured into the Northwest Passage on board the Swedish ice breaker, Oden.
The ramifications of the opening of the Northwest Passage for those of us in the Arctic are large. The documentary explores some of that, along with the drastic changes we are seeing, and some of the history of what truly has been an obsession at times, regarding the famed passage.
The expedition was clearly geared towards education, with 28 undergrad and graduate students on board the vessel, conducting research. It’s extremely rare to see undergrads involved in research at this level. This included two Inuits from Nunavut. The team also did 40 live Q&A sessions via satellite, to museums and education facilities back on the mainland, including institutions in Alaska.
One of the frightening takeaways was the amount of plastic that was found frozen in the sea ice. Researchers could not contain their surprise at the amount that was discovered in the core samples. In an area that is still considered pristine by many, plastics and micro-plastics have made their way to the far northern waters.
The documentary is an hour long, and well worth the time if it becomes available to your community or streaming service. The excitement of the young researchers alone is rewarding to see.
November in Haines, Alaska normally means bald eagles. The largest concentration of bald eagles in the world happens at the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, where the Tsirku River, warmed by ground water, meets the Chilkat River. This span of open water, and a late run of chum salmon bring in eagles in large numbers. In normal years, one spot on the river can contain 500 eagles, with the total number of the raptors in the thousands.
Haines is the home of the festival, and it brings in visitors from around the globe. People come year after year to photograph and hang out with the bald eagles, mingling with fellow birders and outdoor enthusiasts. This year, the festival was canceled due to Covid-19. It’s just another blow to local businesses, in a year full of them.
Oddly enough, the eagles didn’t show up either. One count had 46 bald eagles on a spot along the river, when in normal years, there would be around 500. The eagles didn’t come to the Chilkat, because the chum salmon never showed up. The run was a record low, and that has hit eagles, bears and fishermen alike. The bears, who normally fatten up on the late season salmon bounty, have been breaking into local homes and cabins more than usual, seeking out food.
Like all of our salmon runs that have been in decline, no one can answer the “Why question”. Is it the warming ocean and rivers? Over fishing? Are the hatchery fish too much competition for the wild ones for food out in the ocean? Or, are all these theories tied in together?
One thing is for certain: The entire ecosystem up here runs off of a strong salmon run. And so does the economy.
A recent storm that hit Nome, Alaska had such a storm surge, that it took a cabin off its foundation, floating it upstream on the Nome River.
The cabin, owned by Rita Hulkill (82) of Nome, had been on the site for decades. According to Hulkill, the water had never been that high, ever. Without any sea ice, there was nothing to protect Nome from the surge. The cabin sat on a parcel of land that was a part of a native allotment that belonged to the Hulkill family. Much of that allotment has been eroded away, and only a few feet remain.
The cabin, originally built in the 1970’s, was deposited, intact, up river from its original location. It had been used primarily as a subsistence residence in recent years.
Salmon is a vital resource in the state, so it should come as no surprise that Alaska has been studying salmon since before statehood. For over 60 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept detailed records of length, weight, age and escapement for four species of Pacific salmon that spawn here.
The salmon that return to Alaska from their time in the ocean, are now smaller than they have been historically. The reason: They are returning to spawn at a younger age.
The Chinook, Alaska’s state fish, has been the hardest hit. King salmon are, on average, coming in at 8% smaller than in the 1980’s. The coho, or silver salmon is 3.3% smaller, chum is at 2.4%, and the sockeye 2.1. The decrease in size has accelerated since 2010 for all four species.
At first glance, what is 8% really? Well, the ramifications are large and far reaching. The Yukon-Kuskokwim River system is the largest subsistence area in the entire country. It takes more fish to feed a family. Commercial fishermen also must catch more fish to make the same amount of money.
Environmentally, the entire ecosystem relies on the salmon returning to spawn. Just the reduction in chinook salmon size alone means a reduction of 16% in egg production, i.e. future salmon populations; and a 28% reduction in nutrients going back into the river systems. For the pocket book issues: the reduction in king salmon means a 26% reduction as a food source, and a 21% reduction in the value of the fishery.
There does not appear to be one smoking gun for the change in Alaska’s salmon population, but a series of events that effect each species differently. Warming ocean temperatures are partly to blame, but so is competition between wild and hatchery populations. Size-selective fishing seems to also be a part of the equation, especially with the mighty chinook.
Wild salmon can stay out in the ocean for up to 7 years, but now they are often returning to fresh water to spawn at 4 years.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Dept of Fish & Game; Alaska Public Media; Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
The sea otter is the largest of the weasel family; it is also the smallest marine mammal. Adult males average five feet in length and ninety pounds. Females are about the same length, but run about thirty pounds lighter.
Life span is between 15-20 years in the wild. Sexual maturity happens at 2-3 years for females, and 4-5 years for males. It should be noted, it may take several more years for a male to breed, until one holds a breeding territory. Breeding can happen at any time of the year, and young can be born during any and all seasons, but in Alaska, birth usually occurs in the spring. The female raises one pup per year.
In order to maintain body weight, a sea otter must eat 25% of its mass, every day. They have the densest fur of any mammal, with between 800,000 – 1 million hairs per square inch.
Alaska has three distinct populations of sea otter: The Southwest, South-central and Southeast. Alaska is home to 90% of the world sea otter population.
The Southeast and Southcentral population is stable, but the Southwestern population has been listed as threatened since 2005. This population, which runs from Kodiak Island west throughout the Aleutian Chain, has lost roughly 65% of its numbers since the 1980’s.
Sea otters are considered a keystone species in the Alaska coastal environment. Now, they are proving to be the protectors of the underwater kelp forests. As the sea otter population plummeted in the Aleutians, the sea urchin population exploded. The sea otter is the number one predator of the sea urchin; sea otters will eat them like popcorn.
The number one predator of the kelp forest, is the sea urchin. Without the sea otters to keep the sea urchin population under control, the urchins have decimated the kelp forest along the Aleutian Chain. Now, the sea urchins are destroying the reefs along the Chain. With the drop in kelp, the sea urchins are eating the algae that creates the reef. These reefs are disappearing right before researchers eyes.
The kelp forest are now gone from the central and western Aleutians. In their place are often 400 sea urchins per square meter. The loss of the kelp is huge on several fronts. It is a home and safety zone to numerous fish species, cod among them. The 1200 mile Aleutian Chain supports two multi-million dollar fisheries: Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.
Kelp is also an extremely efficient absorber and holder of CO2. Like all land plants, kelp forests take CO2 out of the air during photosynthesis. Without kelp, the oceans lose a tool in lowering carbon in the atmosphere. Kelp forests also help reduce the force of storm surges, which Alaska is facing more and more.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, there are several potential drivers for the western sea otter population drop. Overharvest, disease and predation. The new predator on the block in the Aleutians is the killer whale. Prior to 1991, there was not a documented case of an orca singling out sea otters for a food source. Now, it seems to be common. What changed? Something else changed in the diet of orcas that now makes the sea otter worthwhile. There are several theories, but no definitive answer.
Currently, sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Sources: University of Alaska – Fairbanks; Alaska Department of Fish & Game; Fairbanks Daily-News Miner; Alaska SeaLife Center; Ocean Conservancy.