Climate Change, Two Ways

A trip from Arizona to Alaska reveals that the two states have more in common than they should.

Published August 19, 2015

Shore Lines is a place for readers to recount an experience of personal significance that helped them connect with one small stretch of the world’s vast and varied coast.

Two hundred meters away, a humpback whale breaches. But it’s doing more than breaching—it’s rocketing into the air before it crashes down, creating a thunder that echoes off the surrounding cliffs and through my chest. Before diving back into the depths, it slaps its forked tail on the water over and over.

My sea-kayaking guide, a 10-year veteran of Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park, says he’s never seen a display like this. “Maybe it’s calling a mate or just acting playful,” he speculates.

Or maybe, like me, the whale senses that something is amiss. It’s mid-June and temperatures are climbing above 26 ˚C, breaking record highs along this stretch of coast in southeastern Alaska. Usually, kayakers here need a wetsuit to stay comfortable. Not today.

Record-breaking heat isn’t new to me. I live in southern Arizona, where the thermometer can register above 37 ˚C from April through September. Sure, the Alaska sunshine feels nice, but it also troubles me. I came here to escape the desert. I want to absorb the chill and the wet, to savor the green hillsides and jagged mountains and vast white sheets of ice that kiss the coastline. I hoped that this journey would inoculate me against the Sonoran summer ahead. Instead, I’m watching global warming manifest in a different way. 

Alaska and Arizona are as opposite as you might imagine. But they have something important in common: climate change is hitting them both hard. Arizona is warming faster than any other state in the “Lower 48,” say recent climate reports. Meanwhile, Alaska is warming at twice the average rate of all other American states combined.

Glacier Bay kayakers are witnessing this in real time, as tidewater laps at the toes of the glaciers and causes them to calve, dropping 60-meter-tall icebergs that float like giant buoys out to sea. The ice here has retreated more than 104 kilometers since George Vancouver sailed by in 1794, the fastest glacial retreat on record.

Thinking of Arizona baking while Alaska melts, I begin to lose hope. But then we catch another glimpse of the whale, swimming toward the open ocean, and my guide mentions that North Pacific humpbacks came back from the brink of extinction after generations of overhunting by humans. Their population grew from just over 1,000 in the 1960s to nearly 22,000 today. Paddling on, I’m buoyed by that statistic and by the idea that humans took notice and changed their behavior—and that it can happen again.