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From Icefield to Ocean - What Glacier Change Might Mean for the Future of Alaska

March 18, 2015

Frozen bodies of ice cover nearly 10 percent of the state of Alaska, but the influence of glaciers on the environment, tourism, fisheries, hydropower, and other important Alaska resources is rarely discussed.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska    Frozen bodies of ice cover nearly 10 percent of the state of Alaska, but the influence of glaciers on the environment, tourism, fisheries, hydropower, and other important Alaska resources is rarely discussed.

But a new article published this week in the journal BioScience has started the conversation.

Led by Shad O’Neel, from the U.S. Geological Survey Alaska Science Center, the paper combines what scientists currently know about the physical, chemical and biological connections that link high elevation icefields to glaciers, freshwater runoff streams and the ocean. These connections are prevalent throughout southeast and south-central Alaska, an area known as the Northern Pacific Coastal Temperate Rainforest, and these processes are linked to western and northern Alaska through ocean currents that transport heat and food to the Arctic. 

"This winter provides an excellent example of what the future may hold for coastal Alaska with winter storms coming in as rain instead of snow and limiting ski and motorized recreation for tourists and residents alike," said O’Neel.  "Less thought is given to how the low snowmelt runoff will impact nearshore ocean currents, ocean stratification and phytoplankton blooms that are essential for salmon populations.  One winter like this, here and there, is probably something the ecosystem can tolerate, but if this winter becomes the new normal we need to develop a better understanding of the impacts on the ecosystem."

Coastal Alaska and British Columbia glaciers are among the fastest changing glaciers on Earth. Glaciers are central to many natural processes and economic activities in this region. Changes in coastal icefields and glaciers can have a ripple effect down through the watershed all the way to the ocean. 

"Alaska's icefields are closely linked to downstream rivers and estuaries and we need to develop interdisciplinary research efforts that allow us to study this icefield-to-ocean system in a more holistic manner," said Eran Hood, second author and a scientist with the University of Alaska Southeast (Juneau)

Given the complexity of the icefield-to-ocean ecosystem, coordination for the paper began almost two years ago with a two-day workshop that brought together 30 resource managers and scientists focused on glaciers, streams, oceans, and wildlife.

“Coordination is difficult because geophysicists, biologists and resource managers have different languages and work goals,” said O’Neel. “The workshop helped us to listen to each other’s concerns, and align parts of our work towards each other’s interests. It was amazing how many overlapping interests and challenges we identified.”

Researchers and managers worked together to identify several important questions about the interactions between changing glaciers and resources outlined in the paper. The authors found this integrated approach useful and called for further efforts to prioritize and align management and scientific goals so the impacts of glacier change can effectively be used in future resource management decisions.

"This work highlights the pressing need to increase our understanding of the role that glaciers play in the Gulf of Alaska coastal ecosystems," said Hood.

The research was supported by the Department of the Interior Alaska Climate Science Center, the USGS Alaska Science Center and the U.S. National Science Foundation. The Alaska Climate Science Center provides scientific information to help natural resource managers and policy makers respond effectively to climate change.

The "From Icefield to Ocean Poster" depicts the important linkages between glaciers and the ocean. The product is a result of Alaska Climate Science Center research projects and workshops. The team felt that it was particularly important to find a compelling way to communicate these research findings to Alaskans because Alaska’s coastal glaciers are among the most rapidly changing areas on the planet and glacier runoff can influence marine habitats, ocean currents and economic activities.