Impact of Changing Climate on Aialik Bay, Alaska

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.   Routine Arctic temperature measurements began in the 1880’s. Drawing on these and thousands of other measurements across the globe and over time, NASA has created the attached time lapse of global temperature anomaly across the globe.  Alaska lies within the region of most rapid temperature rise. 

In this visualization of 130 years of temperature data, changing colors represent the change in surface temperature relative to temperature averaged of over the period from 1951 to 1980 for the same location.  Yellow, orange to red colors represent temperatures above this average.  Light to dark blue colors represent temperatures below this average.  Eighteen of the 19 warmest years have all occurred since 2001.

Aialik Bay is a compelling location to see first hand the impacts of increasing temperature in Alaska.   Based in a small cabin on the east side of the bay, we spend our days kayaking the bay, exploring and experiencing the surrounding area.

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The Aialik Glacier calves, on average, 70 tons of ice per day. From our cabin about a mile away, we periodically hear distance booms of what the locals call “white thunder”.  Kayaking to the face of the glacier provides an up close, visceral experience of this actively moving glacier as it calves ice into the head of Aialik Bay.

Bruce Molnia of the US Geological Survey, as part of an effort in repeat photographs of Alaskan glaciers to show historic changes, captured significant changes of the Pedersen Glacier.  A photographic pair taken from about the same shoreline location of Pedersen Glacier. The photographs identify significant changes that have occurred during the 95 years between 1909 and 2004. The 2004 photograph a 1.5 km retreat of Pedersen Glacier from the field of view.   These changes are descried in NOAA and American Geophysical Union publications.

Pedersen Glacier 1909 and 2004

Both Aialik Glacier and nearby Pedersen Glacier are rapidly receding, and in the not too distant future, their calving faces will no longer reach water’s edge. At this point, they will continue to recede, retreating up the mountain slopes. Ultimately, these glaciers will disappear completely.  

This has happened to other glaciers that once recached Aialik Bay, and their decaying remnants can be seen on the high mountain slopes above the bay.

Paddling into the Pedersen Glacier lagoon in a sea kayak on a warm July evening in the summer of 2015 is a magical experience. Low angle, evening sunlight passes over and through small icebergs from the calving Pedersen Glacier.   Light traveling through the ice takes on a bright blue cast.  Air bubbles in clear glacial ice refract the sunlight into bright sparkles, air that is hundreds of years old.  A harbor seal lying in the shade of an ice overhang peers out at us, with melt water dripping behind.

The time scale of geologic processes is so long that we humans rarely experience the changing earth.  Over the past hundred years, as the earth has warmed, temperatures have risen in Arctic regions twice as fast as the rest of our planet.  As a result of this warming, mountain glaciers are melting faster then they receive new snow and ice, and they are rapidly disappearing.  Over the past one hundred years, the Pedersen Glacier has receded almost a mile, and in the not too distant future will no longer reach water's edge.

About two years ago, my first grandchild, Ella, was born at a time when I was also working through major life transitions with my father.  During Ella’s earliest days, I thought a lot about time and came to realize that when Ella reaches my father’s age, the year will be 2106.  What will our world be like for her in 2106?  How much warmer will the earth be?  What changes will have occurred?  What will her life be like?

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