Michelle’s Trip to Alaska

Chugach State Park
Photo of Chugach State Park by Michelle Mendoza

Many have heard of infamous melting glaciers and rising sea levels. Personally, I have seen the photos and videos documenting the changes over the years. Although we have heard about this situation from scientists, teachers, and climate advocates from all over the world, there’s still some distance from everyday life and melting ice caps. 

I had the opportunity to visit Anchorage, Alaska in early January 2022. While I had hopes of seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis), going dog mushing, and learning how to ski — little did I know my experience would be very different.

As an environmental health intern, climate change is always on my mind. It is one of the reasons why I wished to visit Alaska. I know I cannot speak for everyone on the subject; there are many who do feel strongly about our climate crisis and this topic is not to be taken lightly. My perspective involves everyday climate conversations with those close to me. Climate change events have become a constant presence, such that it feels as if we were talking about the weather. (In a way, we are!)

What I observed in my surroundings while in Alaska made me reflect on how weather and climate are interconnected, as well as different from one another. Climate does describe weather! It speaks to the patterns of weather over a long period of time. Looking at the changes in Earth’s climate over many decades, centuries, and millennia, brings us to the bigger issue that is climate change.

Nature & Wildlife

Alaska is full of local wildlife, and we got to experience it firsthand! The first time was right outside of our room. A moose — bigger than our car! —, stood outside our front door. The moose did not have antlers, so she was likely what’s known as a female “cow”. She was peacefully eating leaves off the trees and did not appear disturbed. A biker passing by with their dog caught the moose’s attention, and it chased quickly after them, out of my sight in seconds.

Due to the heavy snowfall in December 2021, moose were acting more aggressively than usual. According to Tony Hollis, a wildlife official from Fairbanks, Alaska, moose can be found on sidewalks, groomed trails, and in urban areas because it is easier for them to travel as opposed to the deep snow. 

On a particularly dark night, during my afternoon walk through the park, I saw a moose standing a couple of feet away from us. Knowing that moose will charge if they feel threatened, my first instinct was to run. My boyfriend saw the panic in my eyes and calmed me quietly. We both backed away slowly until we were at a safe distance. We ran into a few residents walking their dogs on that same trail. While they did not appear to be afraid of the moose warning, they immediately leashed their dogs and changed direction. 

Between residents and wildlife, there appeared to be healthy respect and acknowledgment. They were comfortable sharing their environment with wildlife such as moose. 

Photo of Local Moose by Michelle Mendoza

Anchorage’s landscape has undergone many changes. What started as a railroad construction camp has become one of Alaska’s largest urban cities. Due to urbanization, many trees, such as willows, were cut down to create the city we see today. Yet, citizen action in the mid-1960’s fought to preserve all 490,866 acres of wild Chugach mountains. The Chugach State Park is protected and accessible to the public.

There is nothing like seeing these beautiful snow-capped mountains. The only sound is your own thoughts, and of course, it was a lot of fun to play in the snow! 

Photo of Chugach State Park- Glen Alp Sign

Near our lodging, there was a creek that ran below a bridge, called Little Campbell Creek. This creek has been through so much. The urban parts of Little Campbell Creek have been ditched and straightened out over the years, impacting and damaging the salmon habitat. The creek’s natural pathway and vegetation have been replaced with buildings, roads, and parking lots. The impervious nature of these surfaces has caused polluted runoff — such as stormwater and pet waste — to enter the creek. 

Little Campbell Creek is Campbell Creek’s largest tributary, home to young Chinook (king) and coho (silver) salmon. These salmon not only provide recreational fishing in the area, but also bring extra nutrients to this watershed. Residents could help monitor and protect Little Campbell Creek, preserving it for future generations.

Photo of Campbell Creek by Michelle Mendoza

Little Campbell Creek had been frozen for my first three days in Anchorage. It was hidden under layers of snow because of the subzero temperatures — until one morning, it strangely felt warm outside. The snow in the backyard had significantly melted and I could see the creek! The water was visible and showed signs of thawing; in certain areas, there was hardly any ice covering its surface. To gauge whether the creek was close to liquid again, I tossed a pebble across its surface. I heard high pitches, and I took that as an indication that the ice was not safe to walk on.

Photo of Campbell Creek by Michelle Mendoza

Temperatures can change from day-to-day. Maybe this kind of variation was normal in such an extreme environment as Alaska? Yet, my observation felt noteworthy. I’ve experienced too many effects of climate change to ignore this sudden, bizarre weather change.  

Weather vs. Climate

I was not alone in noticing these dramatic changes in temperature. CBS News reported on January 11, Anchorage’s 26°F was considerably warmer than Boston Massachusetts 8°F. The National Weather Service reported a 67°F reading for Alaska on December 26, 2021— the state’s highest temperature ever recorded for December!

The warmer-than-usual temperatures allude to the bigger issue of a changing climate. It is understandable that the temperature can vary depending on the seasons in Alaska. What can not be so easily accepted is the concerning climate trends throughout the years.

One of the climate change anomalies is permafrost thawing. In the scientific journal Climate and Atmospheric Science, a study illuminates how an increase in summer rain has affected the permafrost in the last five years. Different lands surrounding Fairbanks had their land permafrost measured, and all sites showed more rainfall leading to deep permafrost thawing.

Image via WBZ | CBS Boston News

A day before arriving in Anchorage there was a severe weather storm in South Central Alaska. Alaskans experienced winds up to 90mph and wind chill at -20°F to -30°F! This weather storm left thousands of people without electricity and left the roads in hazardous conditions. 

We had planned to go see the glaciers, and had rented a car and were prepared to rough out the new terrain. 

But due to the previous snow and windstorms, travel was discouraged on major roadways, as some are not regularly maintained during the winter. Even within the city, cars tended to lose traction in some ice patches and slid at times. To go glacier sightseeing would require using Seward Highway, one of the most dangerous roads in Alaska. We kept seeing reports of crashes in the area. Avalanche signs were everywhere. In the end, for the sake of our own safety, we decided to stay within the city limits.

Photo of Ted Steven Intl. Airport by Michelle Mendoza

Food Shortage and Practices

We shopped for food at Carrs, a nearby grocery store. While walking through the aisles, a lot of them seemed bare. At first, I assumed the store simply needed to be restocked, maybe we were early? When we went to a second Carrs location, we could not find some items, it was more empty than the previous one! I speculated on whether it had to do with staff shortages. The ongoing global supply chain issues could be the culprit. Maybe the situation is more dire in Anchorage? 

My question was answered when I went to Twitter that night. Someone had posted multiple photos about the bare shelves in Anchorage and in one of the photos the source of the problem was stated. Severe weather has made it difficult to receive and deliver items in the area.

Image via Twitter

I had Little Campbell Creek in the back of my mind as I shopped for salmon, one of our recurring meals in Alaska. Not only did I notice the expensive price of the fish, but also that a lot of city restaurants and businesses relied on it. 

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game lists salmon as a reliable food source to many Alaskans, and salmon is a major part of Alaska’s economy. There are numerous jobs that rely on Alaskan salmon — fisheries, hatcheries, and commercial fishermen. Alaskans tend to disagree about the best way of protecting the salmon, who can catch them, and how to sustain the population. The changing climate, rising water temperatures, and ocean acidification all pose a threat to the state’s salmon populations. 

Alaska has been experiencing a decline in multiple salmon species. There was a crushing salmon disaster in 2021 that has led Alaska tribes to demand voting seats to protect Western Alaskan salmon. Since we are in the 2022 season of catching salmon, this is a time-sensitive issue for Alaskans. The fact that I had the opportunity to eat this finite source of salmon, that holds so much cultural significance and food security for Indigenous groups, made me realize how privileged I am that I do not have to worry about my own sources of food. It is not the first time indigenous groups have had to advocate for their rights and the rights of nature. 

Signs of Climate Change

Coming from Stockton, California, I am familiar with the effects of climate change. I have seen our state go through it. From years of drought, to wildfires, to extreme temperatures, I am used to recognizing the signs of our climate emergency. Going to Alaska and seeing with my own eyes how humanity’s actions have impacted this beautiful state has made the climate crisis more tangible. 

Leaving the state, I felt a renewed sense of purpose in advocating for the environment. The impacts of climate change do not discriminate; its reach is far and the consequences are lasting. I want to be able to return to Alaska and experience all the state has to offer. Although we visited Anchorage in the midst of hazardous road conditions  — not to mention a COVID surge — we made the best of it. 

Photo by Hector Carvajal