Two hours before I was set to board a plane to Cordova, Alaska, I received an email letting me know my project there was canceled.
“High water, ending season early” was the subject line in the communication from Matt Piche, a fish biologist and the Natural Resources Coordinator at the Native Village of Eyak (NVE) tribal government. The brief message that followed described historically high water levels in the Copper River, making the work of fish biologists at the camp at Baird Canyon impossible and dangerous. Camp would be evacuated early, Matt reported, and there would be no time for me to get there.
Sitting on the edge of my bed in Eugene, Oregon at 3 a.m., I reread the message and then considered re-packing my bags in light of the gear I would probably no longer need: sleeping bag, heavy-duty rubber rain overalls, rain boots, layers for warmth. In the end, I left the bags the way they were and boarded my first of three flights to Cordova, wracking my brain for ways to adapt to this change of plans and salvage a story out of the situation.
The original plan had been to arrive in Cordova on July 1 and then leave town July 2 to head to the isolated Baird Camp, located about 42 miles up the Copper River. At Baird Camp, field biologists hired by NVE spend three months using a fish wheel that scoops chinook salmon traveling upriver to spawn into a bucket of sorts, allowing biologists to handle the fish in the least stressful way in order to collect data on individual specimen’s size and general health. The fish and the watershed are the economic lifeforce of contemporary Cordova and the traditional lifeforce of the indigenous Eyak people. Any changes to the environment, therefore, could be cause for alarm if it impacts the salmon runs, so the fishery is closely monitored.
I wasn’t sure exactly what path the story about the work at Baird Camp would take, but I was eager to arrive and see the fish wheel, feel the isolation and experience the river.
Instead, I found myself roaming the streets of Cordova on July 2, acquainting myself with a town I hadn’t expected to spend much time in.
Cordova is not a big place: according to the Cordova Chamber of Commerce, there are about 3000 year-round residents, and in the summer that number doubles for seasonal workers in town for the commercial fishing industry. By noon I had walked the main downtown street, visited the Ilanka Cultural Center, viewed the exhibits at the Cordova Center and checked out the U.S. Forest Service offices. I ate some fish tacos and wandered the docks, waiting for any news from Matt. Finally, around 2 p.m., an email pinged through and I gave him a call.
Matt asked me where I was in town. When I told him my location near Baja Taco, he said, “I am about 200 yards away from you,” and in a couple minutes, a man in his early 30s with tousled sandy-brown hair bounded up the wooden steps to the seating area at the popular restaurant featuring a bus converted into a kitchen with permanent indoor and outdoor seating.
“Baird Camp is my favorite place on earth,” Matt said, and then quickly added, “not to rub it in… I’m really sorry we couldn’t get you up there.”
I assured him that I didn’t hold him responsible for overflowing rivers, but that I still wanted to know everything he could tell me about the project..
Back at the NVE office, Matt showed me into a room with several workstations and a wall covered with a detailed map of the Copper River watershed. The size of the map on the wall only emphasized what my first-time to Alaska mind had been trying to comprehend since landing: Alaska is big. The watershed encompasses 26,500 square miles and is still only a fraction of the 663,268 square miles that make up the 49th state. According to the Copper River Watershed Project, it is one of the last remaining intact watersheds in North America, originating at the Copper Glacier on Mount Wrangell in south-central Alaska and draining into the Gulf of Alaska some 290 miles later.
Pointing to features on the map, Matt explained that the watershed is unique because 18 percent of it is glaciated, though that amount has been receding rapidly in recent years. It includes three mountain ranges – the Chugach, the Wrangell and the Saint Elias. The nation’s largest and least visited national park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, is also within the watershed. The National Park Service website describes the 13.2 million acres of Wrangell-St. Elias as “the same size as Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park and Switzerland combined!”
Matt described the boundaries of the watershed while pointing to the mountains in the national park: “If you stand on these mountains and pee in this direction, you’d be peeing into the Copper River drainage. If you turn around and pee in this direction, you’re peeing into the Yukon River drainage.”
Yet another reason that the Copper River Watershed is unique, according to Matt, is that it includes two distinct natural areas: mountains and glaciers in the southern part of the watershed, and taiga – characterized by stretches of coniferous forest in the flat areas between mountain ranges – in the north.
“Climate change will change each of these differently, but we’re not sure how,” Matt said.
Current predictions see the populations of salmon growing as glaciers continue to melt and water levels rise in a warming climate, but then those populations will drop off as water levels go down once the glaciers have been exhausted.
The melting of the glaciers, it turns out, is exactly why the plan to head upriver had to be abandoned, and why the whole Baird Camp operation had to be evacuated several weeks earlier than usual.
“So, if I say that climate change ruined my climate science project, that would be true?” I asked.
Matt laughed. “I am confident this is a warm weather event,” he said, and went on to describe how a combination of low snowfall and low rainfall and high temperatures have created the perfect scenario to watch climate change in action.
The Copper River is a glacial-fed river. It is easy to tell the difference between glacial-fed rivers and spring- or snow-fed rivers because glacial flour, or fine-grained silt created by the eons-long process of glacier grinding on bedrock, makes glacial-fed rivers a milky tan color as they flow away from their glacial sources. Spring- and snow-fed rivers remain clear while glacial-fed rivers appear opaque. This year, low snowfalls in the mountains and warm spring temperatures meant that mountain snow was melted by May. Low rainfall on top of that has meant that clear rivers and creeks are running low, while glacial-fed rivers are overflowing their banks.
Never before seen high temperatures in Alaska (Anchorage reached a boiling 90 F for the first time in its history in early July) are hastening the melting of glaciers.
“This water level with no snow is unprecedented,” Matt continued. Historically, or for as long as any records have been kept, no one has ever seen water levels this high. It makes traveling on the river dangerous and continuing to work in the camps along the riverbanks in canyons like Baird impossible.
Matt compared it to the current situation on the Gulkana River, a snow-fed tributary of the Copper. The Gulkana is low and water temperatures have been in the 70s. With record numbers of chinook salmon beginning their journey upriver, Matt is concerned that many won’t make it: warm water temperatures have been identified as an additional stressor to salmon, along with the effort to travel upstream in the challenging Copper River system and threats from predators, including humans, in low water levels, the compounded stress might mean that less salmon are able to successfully spawn.
For now, Matt and those who stake their livelihoods on the fisheries and the river will have to wait and see what the ultimate impacts of these low precipitation/high temperature years will be, and what happens if that trend continues. In the meantime, this intersection of conditions has provided the perfect example of how climate change is impacting ecosystems and human lives, sometimes suddenly and oftentimes startlingly sooner than we might want to acknowledge: the ice is melting, fast, and now.
Matt feels no pressure to try to explain what is happening in any other terms than the ones that best describe what he sees before his eyes and in the data: “NVE trusts me to be a scientist. I’m asked to give my scientific opinion based on my education, training and data availability. It’s great to just be a scientist.”
Increasing temperatures are becoming the norm that is forcing those depending on the watershed to adapt. Barring a global effort to address the human causes of a warming planet, adapt is all one can do.
CLIMATE CHANGE RUINED MY CLIMATE SCIENCE PROJECT
Story by Denise Silfee
was the subject line in the communication from Matt Piche, a fish biologist and the Natural Resources Coordinator at the Native Village of Eyak (NVE) tribal government. The brief message that followed described in the Copper River, making the work of fish biologists at the camp at Baird Canyon impossible and dangerous. Camp would be evacuated early, Matt reported, and there would be no time for me to get there.
“ but we’re not sure how,” Matt said.
(Anchorage reached a boiling 90 F for the first time in its history in early July) are hastening the melting of glaciers.
Increasing temperatures are becoming the norm that is forcing those depending on the watershed to adapt. Barring a global effort to address the human causes of a warming planet,