Although more than a year in the distance, bigger and better facilities are in the works for the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Anyone who travels to the center during the summer months knows of its bustling crowds and long lines. But rather than just getting more space to pack them in, center director John Neary wants to make a difference with the construction — transforming the place into a “climate change education center.”
At a talk he’ll give Wednesday, Neary will outline the physical and educational changes the center needs to undergo: both a transformation of the facilities to improve visitor flow — such as more bathrooms and a different parking arrangement — and a philosophical change in the way things are run at the center, he said.
Climate change is causing the Mendenhall Glacier to thin and retreat more rapidly than it has in the past, as is the case for about 90 percent of Southeast Alaska’s hundreds to thousands of glaciers, said Eran Hood, associate professor of environmental science at University of Alaska Southeast. This is causing Neary and his staff to reconsider how the center is configured.
“The glacier will someday disappear out of view from the center,” Neary said. “We don’t know when that’s going to happen, but scientists tell us within the decade we’ll no longer have icebergs in the lake. We can’t assume this is a stable situation we have here.”
Instead of mentioning climate change in passing as the cause of the glacier’s retreat, Neary wants to make it the focus of the experience at the visitor center, he said. The center gets about 440,000 cruise ship visitors and other tourists per year, as well as about 10,000 local visitors.
“I think there’s a lost opportunity with those folks,” Neary said. “Instead of beating around the bush with climate change, let’s tackle it head on. People ought to be thinking when they go back home after their visit.”
The focus of exhibits in the center should be climate change and its impact on the glacier, Neary said.
“(Visitors are) getting a lot from that ‘awe’ in nature,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re coupling that with that profound message of ‘Yes, but it’s going to disappear,’ and how we should be addressing this as the issue of our times.”
Hood said glacial retreat is the result of one or two things: a drier climate or a warmer climate.
“But if we look at the climate data, there’s no indication that it’s getting drier here,” he said. “There is a strong indication that it’s getting warmer here. There’s more times where we get rain on the glacier rather than snow.”
However, there is the debate as to if the warming trend that’s occurred since the mid-1700s is due to human activity or a natural cycle, Hood said, noting that most research points to the former.
“A large part of the warming trend we’re in is because of human activities, and there’s no reason to think Juneau would be any different than anywhere else in that regard,” he said.
“There’s no question (the glacier is) going away,” Hood said. “And all the projections say that trend will continue and probably increase.”
Neary and Hood said the center and UAS hope to partner to showcase student research on the glacier.
“We have an interest in students helping to develop outreach products that people could see in the visitor center about the kinds of research we’re doing on the glacier,” Hood said. “The visitor center is a great vehicle for that. We really are trying to develop that partnership into a more formal and ongoing internship opportunity for students to work there.”
Another focus of the changes Neary wants to head up is making the building itself a model of sustainability, he said.
Right now, the center uses heating oil and regular toilets that add stress on Juneau’s sewer system, among other, dated features, he said.
“We do all those same things home owners do, and why should we keep doing that?” he said. “The center should be a demonstration site for what to do about climate change.”
Neary wants to ditch the oil and unplug from the power grid by looking to alternative energy sources.
“Collect solar and wind energy and make this place zero net energy, so we produce more than we use,” he said.
And it’s no secret the toilets need an overhaul anyway, Neary said. The lines to the women’s restroom are 20 minutes long in the summer, he said.
“Why shouldn’t we make them so (the bathrooms) don’t produce waste into the Juneau system, they recycle it,” Neary said.
He hopes the center can “set the bar” for turning around climate change, and perhaps even save Alaska’s glaciers.
Hood said it would take a lot to reverse the glacier’s dwindling: years of snowy winters and cold summers for the glacier to gain mass, or at the very least stay the same.
“You basically have to have a lot of snow in winter that doesn’t melt in summer, a period of multiple years where you have some combination of high snowfall in winter and a cold summer where there wasn’t that much melting in order to reverse the trend we’re seeing now,” he said. Recently, “every year there’s been more melting in the summer than snow in winter.”
Neary said his talk will also focus on the practical side of the center. As it stands now, he said, visitors are getting “not enough bang for their buck in their visit” because of crowds and long waits.
A different bus and car system needs to be developed, he said, “so they’re not breathing diesel fumes when they’re having a once-in a lifetime view of the glacier.”
“They’re waiting in line just to get dropped off, they wait in line for restrooms, they wait in line in the visitor center,” he said. “There’s not very good visitor flow around here. There are all these choke points, and we need to make that flow better.”
One short-term improvement to be installed in May are speed cushions on the road leading up to the glacier. The Juneau Police Department did week-long traffic studies in June and August of last year, Neary said, and found that 43 percent of vehicles were speeding on the last stretch where the posted limit is 20 miles per hour.
Work on a master plan for the visitor center will begin in November, according to Neary, and public meetings will be held as well.
Because federal funding to the center was cut 50 percent in the last year and will continue to dwindle, money for these improvements is an issue, Neary said. He hopes that during the planning process, business partners step up to be involved with greening the infrastructure of the facility as well as changing its educational focus.
“Half a million people coming and watching a shrinking glacier — isn’t it a no-brainer?” Neary said. “Right now we’re using 60-power spotting scopes to find the mountain goats up on the peaks. How long is it going to be until we need to use those to find the glacier?”
Neary will lead a discussion on changes coming to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the center. The talk is part of Wildlife Wednesdays, sponsored by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance Southeast.
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.