GUSTAVUS - Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve staff members this week are examining the effects of global climate change on their park's glacial landscape.
A glaciologist with the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute informed them that the thinning of several of the park's famous glaciers has accelerated dramatically in the last few years.
The Brady Glacier, for example, has been losing roughly two to three meters per year at its base, likely linked to warmer temperatures, said Craig Lingle, the glaciologist.
But in a unique twist, the park's employees on Tuesday spent less time gnashing their teeth over the glaciers' retreat and more time examining their own internal sources of greenhouse gases - the suite of heat-trapping compounds that are blamed for the rapid rise in global temperatures.
The park's biggest source of greenhouse gas pollutants are the cruise ships and private vessels that carry visitors into Glacier Bay's icy fjords during the summer months, according to a recent draft inventory of the park's 2004 emissions. The inventory was produced Tuesday, the first day in a two-day workshop in Gustavus, the gateway community to the national park.
"Ships are incredibly dirty platforms. They produce a tremendous amount of nitrous oxides (NOX)," said Bryan Wood-Thomas, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of International Environmental Policy.
Scientists are examining NOX emissions' potential role in the formation of greenhouse gases.
Within Glacier Bay, marine vessels emitted 97 percent of the park's total 13,754 metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2004, according to the draft inventory produced by the park on Tuesday at the workshop.
About 63 percent of the marine vessels' greenhouse emissions in 2004 came from cruise ships. About 23 percent derived from private vessels visiting the bay and the rest came from park, lodge and other visitor services.
Glacier Bay is the fifth national park in the country to join a federal pilot project, led by the EPA and the U.S. Park Service, to make national parks more "climate friendly."
The so-called Climate Friendly Parks program is part of a Bush administration initiative for voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Bush has acknowledged that humans are contributing to climate change but has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that would mandate emissions reductions.
Because Glacier Bay is uniquely situated among melting glaciers, its employees are "in a unique position" to help the general public understand climate change, said Karen Scott, a specialist with EPA's Global Change Information Branch who is moderating the workshop.
When asked how the park staff should respond to people who don't believe that global warming is real, or that it isn't attributable to humans, Scott said that fewer and fewer scientists are actually making that argument.
"Where we are finding more controversy (is) whether the impacts are negative .... The greatest (issue) of all is what should be done about it. That's where the real arguments take place (in Washington, D.C.)," Scott said.
But on Tuesday, when park staffers and a federal consultant produced results from the park's own emissions inventory, the discussion really began heating up as some staffers had their first view of the numbers.
The emissions inventory provided estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from solid waste, boilers, the purchase of electricity, and fertilizer, among other sources. Though one park staff official questioned it, the inventory showed that the park's solid waste operations produced nine metric tons of greenhouse emissions in 2004.
Federal regulators and the park staff discussed a variety of ways to reduce the emissions on Tuesday, such as making pollution reductions a part of the competitive bidding process for cruise ships that seek to enter the park.
Right now, the cruise ships' permits simply require that the ships meet federal and state air quality standards, according to park officials.
The park officials also discussed ways to make park equipment more fuel-efficient or use renewable energy sources.
The general goal is to provide a good example to the public, Scott said.
So far, parks such as Glacier National Park in Montana and Zion National Park in Utah have already begun reducing their own emissions as part of the federal "climate friendy" parks program, she said.