Climate Change 1

Observations of a Casual Bystander:
Climate Change from a Life-long Alaskan

by John Smelcer

I grew up in Alaska, the Last Frontier, the Last Great Land, the Land of the Midnight Sun. For going on six decades, I have wandered its far corners and seen many spectacular sights. I have had unbelievable experiences, some of which I will share with you in this article. You may doubt some of what I am about to tell you, but I am selling nothing. All that I ask is that you read and think. The world is polarized on the issue of Climate Change or Global Warming. I have trouble understanding the naysayers, for my own observations over more than half a century informs me that our climate is changing. It’s heating up, and it’s happening at a faster and faster rate.

Climate Change 2In my life, I have trekked all over Alaska—climbed many of its mountains, traversed its glaciers, boated its silty, glacier-fed rivers. I have seen glaciers where the terminus (the end) of the wall of ice was right before me when I was young. Nowadays, you cannot see the terminus even with binoculars. The ice has receded miles and miles up the valley or melted away altogether. Take for instance Portage Glacier, thirty miles or so from Anchorage. The Alaska Native tribe of which I am a member, Tazlina, is named after a Glacier and the lake and the river created from its meltwater.
(Photo of John Smelcer mountain biking the Matanuska Glacier, c. 1996)

Climate Change 3

(Portage Glacier present day and c. 1980 inset)

Consider the following photo of Mendenhall Glacier.

Climate Change 4

Climate Change 5In the summer of 1996, a lake that formed on the surface of the Tazlina Glacier suddenly burst free and raced downriver, flooding the basin. Glaciologists aptly call this event a glacier lake outburst flood (see photo at left). I was caught in the flood. I was down at my uncle’s cabin in the village at the confluence of the Tazlina River and the Copper River. Our tribe (Ahtna) is named after the Copper River’s indigenous name, Atna Tuu. I woke up to find water lapping at the doorstep. I jumped in my small pick-up truck and tried to get to higher ground. But the rising river had flooded a low spot across the road. The water was already four or five feet deep and moving fast. It would be deeper later in the day as the river continued to rise. I drove back to the cabin and called my uncle for help. With cell phone in hand, he instructed me how to start and drive his grader, which he had bought from the Alaska State Highway Department at a surplus auction to maintain the several mile-long dirt road down to his cabin. As big and heavy as the grader was, I easily forged the flooded spot to safety.

Climate Change 6A year earlier, I had experienced another catastrophic event related to climate warming. My tribe had hired me to conduct an archaeological survey of our lands on which a logging company had contracted to cut timber to sell to Korea. My job was to discover and document any damage to historical or archaeological sites caused by the heavy logging trucks and bull dozers. I was hiking along the Klutina River when all of a sudden I heard a deafening sound. I can’t explain to you what it sounded like. But it was terrifying. I dropped my rifle (there’s a lot of grizzly bears along the river in summertime), fell to my knees, and covered my ears while looking everywhere for the source of the sound. There, across the river and a few hundred yards upstream, an entire side of a mountain was sliding downhill into the river, carrying hundreds of trees and boulders with it. A cloud of dust filled the air. For a few minutes, the dam blocked the river until the water pressure burst through. I later learned that rising temperatures had melted the permafrost beneath the topsoil, creating a slick zone of mud. At some point the hillside could no longer support the weight. Gravity won out and the whole mountainside came tumbling down. Scientists call this a thaw slump. It’s increasingly happening worldwide in circumpolar regions. I’ve been up and down that valley many times in my life. My uncle owns 40 acres on the river near the lake mouth (see photo above). There is no other place where I can tell that a similar thaw slump has occurred in historic times—no denuded hillside with a rubble pile of rock and trees as testament of the event. The following summer, I brought famed scientist, Carl Sagan, to the exact spot. He was amazed and anxious, for along the river’s edge were several sets of fresh grizzly bear tracks.

Climate Change 7But that wasn’t my only remarkable experience with thaw slumps. In the summer of 1982, I was hired as part of a two-person team mapping the Arctic Sea coastline via satellite link. Our task was to document tidal changes at key places along the coast. At one point, after spending a few days in the Eskimo village of Kaktovik, we were helicoptered to Demarcation Bay, which defines the boundary between Alaska and Canada. One day, during my time off, I was exploring. I always carried my rifle as polar bear frequently pestered us. The nights were especially scary. I was walking up a creek bed when I saw something protruding from a newly formed thaw slump. That first day I didn’t make much of it. But by the next day, I could see more of whatever it was sticking out. By the third day, a goodly portion of a perfectly preserved woolly mammoth was exposed. It had been buried in the permafrost for 10,000 years or longer. By the next day, the mammoth carcass slid down the muddy hill along the creek. Bears and wolves and ravens wasted no time in finding it.

Arctic MethaneBut receding sea ice isn’t the only effect of global warming. Long-held high temperature records were shattered in the summer of 2019. Warmer temperatures in the Far North promote permafrost melting. By definition, permafrost is permanently frozen soil and water, in some places hundreds of feet deep. The entire Pan-Arctic (Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia, and Russia) has giant swaths of tundra and permafrost. For thousands of years, permafrost has sequestered methane, one of the worse greenhouse gases. Melting permafrost releases the sequestered methane, which will ramp up the greenhouse warming affect. (Photo: University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher ignites methane releases from a frozen pond near campus). Scientists are concerned that the addition of Arctic methane release and other outgassing (carbon, oxides, et. al.) will exacerbate global warming.

Climate Change 8But even animals are feeling the effects of Arctic warming. Some years back, a polar bear wandered into a large village on the Yukon River, hundreds of miles south of the Arctic Sea coast. Unfortunately, villagers shot the bear. Evidently, the bear was looking for a new home as diminished sea ice was impacting their ability to hunt seal. I remember kayaking among ice bergs during that summer of mapping and exploration. Nowadays, almost forty years later, due to Arctic sea ice melting, the polar ice in summer is many miles from the coast.


John Smelcer is the inaugural writer-in-residence for the Charter for Compassion, where he teaches an online course Poetry for Compassion and Inspiration. He is the author of over 50 books. Learn more at

© 2023 Charter for Compassion. All rights reserved.