Climate change might cause a surge in a different kind of tourism to Alaska — “last-chance tourism,” as polar ecology scientist Peter Convey calls it.
Convey and Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center director John Neary presented a forum via teleconference Tuesday on the effects of climate change on Alaska’s tourism industry. The forum was based on a recent study on the topic by the University of Cambridge. The prognosis is mixed, depending on how you look at it, the two said.
Alaska’s nature-based tourism may take a hit in the long-term because of steadily rising global temperatures, said Convey, a researcher for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge. Animals that require the specific habitats Alaska offers — bears, salmon, and others — could be slowly squeezed out as the climate changes and other animals move in — “you sort of kill the goose that lay the golden eggs,” Convey said.
The winter season will grow shorter, allowing less time for winter sport tourism, and avalanches could become more common. There’s also the case of the disappearing Mendenhall Glacier.
“The outlook has to be poor, because the trends are global,” Convey said. “(Reversing it) is not impossible, but there is no simple solution on the horizon at present. Even if emissions stopped now, which is impossible, it would take centuries to reverse the issue.”
However, the change offers a flip side: last-chance tourism. Visitors are attracted to locations that may soon change or vanish, such as the glacier, he said. In the short term, the next few years or decades, this could provide a bump to Alaska’s visitor numbers. Also, a shorter winter means a longer summer, when most visitors come to Alaska. Neary said the season has already been extended by weeks. Convey said it will, eventually, become months longer.
“It’s the last chance to come look at something before it disappears,” Convey said.
In fact, the 2013 summer season broke records set in 2008 — the most visitors who ever came to Alaska, according to the state Department of Commerce. Slightly fewer than 1 million cruise ship visitors and about 20,000 independent travelers came to Juneau last year, Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau President Nancy Woizeschke said. Within Southeast Alaska, tourists spent about $595 million in 2013 alone.
Neary, who has spent 33 years with the U.S. Forest Service, said he’s noticed in the reactions of visitors to the glacier one of two things. If they’d never seen it before, “they gasp, it’s very beautiful, and they’re very affected by it.” During repeat visits after many years, they say, “‘Oh my God, where did it go?’”
The glacier is Juneau’s most-visited location, with about 450,000 visitors in 2013. It’s also retreating at a noticeable rate, Neary said. Within years, there will no longer be icebergs in Mendenhall Lake, he said. He’s worried the glacier, relatively soon, won’t be seen from the visitor center.
“We have all watched it retreating up the valley, behind the lake, wondering what’s going to happen when it disappears from view,” Neary said. When it comes to signifiers of climate change, “glaciers really are the canary in the coal mine. We’ve been watching glaciers retreat for the last 100 years, so it’s not a new phenomenon. What’s new is the rate.”
The quick retreat might soon render ice caves, the glacier’s beautiful but untrustworthy attractions, impossible, Neary said. As the glacier retreats, it will no longer rest on top of the brooks that run under it and create the caves.
The thinning glacier is also “opening up interesting new habitats but it’s also opening up land to landslides,” he said.
He said the visibly changing landscape is making tourism companies’ “investment in your tourism infrastructure questionable.”
To that end, his goal is “to rethink the entire operation at Mendenhall,” making the place a bastion of climate change education. He said tourists arrive at the glacier — where climate change is so apparent — from boats and buses that are “belching emissions.”
“They’re not making the connection between everything they’ve just done and what’s before them,” he said. “Might we develop a niche for green tourism? Might we attract new tourists to Mendenhall Glacier? They might feel a little better about what that site is doing and can take that information back to their communities.”
Neary, using grant funding from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, will attempt to get the center, built in 1962, running on sustainable energy. The grant is for $415,000, he said. The timeline for the project hasn’t yet been established, Neary said, but he hopes to begin work this winter.
The next step will be getting tour companies to do the same with their buses “to really take us into the next century of operations — if we last that long.”
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.