A rapid shift is underway in the ecological fabric of the flower-rich Alaskan arctic, like a massive reshuffling of the ecological deck.
Alaska is a great frontier, one with faint scars among a sea of wilderness too vast, deep, frozen, rugged, and remote for pragmatic progress.
Yet, climate change hangs like a shadow of man, and signatures of change exist where wilderness has been lost. These are the outposts, general stores, landing strips, trails and dirt highways—the latter destroyed six of the eight tires our backcountry guide, Wyatt, stuffed into his faded green Subaru as he ventured from the Wrangell Mountains to the shadow of Denali where we met over hot coffee and eggs.
Out here, Alaska evolves with the weather; they say it changes every 10 minutes. At this pace, you’ll find yourself immersed in flux. Rivers rise and fall with rain that batters mountain ranges hundreds of miles away, and aqueous remnants of glacial epochs past. Massive tidal swings, among the most severe in the world, engulf and expose vast flats that house sand hill cranes at the low, and sea otters, salmon and beluga whales at the high end of the moon’s twice-daily tug.
Our intention was to experience Alaska, and in particular Denali, in the midst of a berry-laden fall. If redwoods are the currency of Northern California, and coral the jewel of the reefs that hug the equator, I would argue that berries and the tundra they grow in serve as the key pillar of a Denali autumn too prominent to miss. Berries— millions of them—garnish a verdant landscape that flows northwest from the brows of mountains and monoliths, 5,000 feet taller than any I had seen up to that point, towards the Yukon Delta and Bering Sea beyond. For a time, we sat among these berries, our rain slicks, jackets and weathered boots shielding us from each drop that glistened on small yellow and red leaves protruding from crowberry, currant, and blueberry bushes.
Here on the riverbanks, slopes and ridges we found a wilderness that exists much like the world did way back when before we carved it up and spit it out. It’s not to say humans haven’t left a signature on the land since the first day we stood on two legs and ran out of Africa. But that hint of a signature grew from a faint path to a deep gash across the land. In today’s world, untouched wilderness has been relegated to the far reaches, largely out of sight, where willow trees, wood frogs, and caribou outnumber cars and streetlights a hundred fold.
Yet even here, deep in Denali, we saw faint signs of progress by modern societal standards: Airliners flew high above icy peaks. A lonely dirt road meandered far off in the distance. A visitor center sat tucked neatly within a verdant slope where an aging photo revealed the massive glacier’s steadfast retreat since 1995. And overhead, skies were clear where clouds of biting insects once loomed.
Climate change: two words that seem to be on everyone’s mind these days. Climate, (meaning the weather that occurs at any one place over time) is changing more rapidly here than most places on Earth. The higher the latitude, the more severe the change. But some may ask: What does climate have to do with insects, and what do insects (or the lack thereof) have to do with climate change?
At the risk of oversimplification, climate change is propelling a warming trend in Alaska—one that brings less snow and aqueous habitat for these biting insects to proliferate. This, in turn, drives a precipitous decline in the productivity of the food web’s vital foundation, one that affects every aspect of the greater arctic ecosystem and reaches far, far beyond to the birds that eat them or the peregrine falcons that eat those little birds. It’s a top-down effect that extends to coal power plants in China, trucks in Kenya, planes in Paris, cows in California, and indeed every single person on Earth. We have each contributed to the lack of insects biting every exposed inch of me while I sat embedded, binoculars in hand, within a field of berries in the Alaskan tundra.
A bounty of berries aside, climate change has triggered a drastic shift felt across every inch of this landscape. Records indicate Alaska has warmed more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past half-century, a staggering increase that trumps anything recorded across the continental United States. This increase alone will not only decimate insect populations and melt glaciers but change the landscape entirely (a 2004 study led by Nobel Prize winner Terry V. Callaghan of the University of Sheffield suggests that by the end of the century, 50 percent of the global tundra could be colonized by trees.) This phenomenon would trigger a rapid shift in the ecological fabric of the flower-rich Alaskan arctic, like a massive reshuffling of the ecological deck. Millions of years of relationships have bloomed from these flowers, the insects that pollinate them, the mammals that harvest their green shoots, and the caribou that graze lichen among them.
With warming trends, fire often follows closely behind dry winters and warm summers. In 2015 alone, wildfires raged across Alaska extending into the arctic, burning a swath of land the size of Connecticut. Where permafrost should be, fires raged. What are the effects? Innumerable. Certainly one massive impact falls upon the majestic and roving caribou, Denali’s crowned totem, which are known to avoid burned winter habitat for decades. What happens when fires rage year after year across greater swaths of land? Time will tell. One fire is all it takes to start that process.
Regardless of what the next century holds, our adventure allowed us to find wilderness—or some contemporary form of it. We reveled in our escape, adventure and freedom, but were unavoidably reminded of our place in the global fabric into which we are inextricably woven. This trip was a bold reminder that my actions have effects that know no borders and that the wilderness we have left is under siege, one that hangs in the balance as we play the cards we’ve been handed.
Let’s play them wisely.
Charles Post is an ecologist looking at the world through a creative lens. Having worked with such companies as GoPro, Leatherman, Teva, and ClifBar, he aims to bridge the gap between adventure nature, ecology, and digital media by pairing his scientific background with his passion for storytelling. See more of his work at charlespost.com and follow him online @charles_post.