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Giant Moving Glacier Threatens Lively Fishing Areas in Alaska - 2002-08-14

Just north of Yakutat, Alaska, a slow-motion river of ice called the Hubbard Glacier grinds through the rocky landscape, the largest tidewater glacier in North America. Earlier this year, the Hubbard unexpectedly sprinted forward the length of two football fields in a matter of weeks, closing off an important salt-water fjord. The closure has threatened the livelihood of a nearby fishing community.

The massive glacier spills out of the surrounding mountains and fans out in a thick tongue of ice 10 kilometers wide, its jagged surface sliced with glowing blue fissures.

The mouth of Russell Fjord is where the ice has been bulldozing piles of dark sediment, called glacial moraine, into shifting mounds. Park Ranger Jacqueline Lott said the ice appears to be staying put for now. "It may hold steady here for a little while, but I think even though it does just hold steady here, it's still a temporary thing. The glacier is very dynamic," she said.

In fact, the moraine has closed off the mouth of Russell Fjord, and the newly formed Russell Lake is filling with fresh water. If the glacial dam holds, scientists predict that eventually, in months or perhaps years, the lake will spill its banks into the Situk River drainage to the south. They say a gush of water some ten to forty times the current volume could wipe out some of the region's richest fisheries for years to come.

For now at least, Harold Eishelman of Boise, Idaho, is enjoying the lovely, languid Situk River. He and his friend Roger Warwick are just a couple of the thousands of sportsmen who come here to enjoy the superb fishing. Sportfishing, in fact, fuels the economy of this village of 700 people, hit hard in recent years by low salmon prices. Mr. Warwick wondered how the locals will fare without it. "If that glacier shuts us down it's gonna effect the area economically, a big impact because I know they depend a lot on the fishermen," he said. "I'm gonna hate to see it happen."

The State Department of Fish and Game estimates the salmon and steelhead trout sportfisheries are worth millions of dollars a year. Commercial and subsistence fishermen also depend on the Situk River.

Greg Dierick fishes for salmon at the mouth of the Situk. With prices so low, he can't afford the gas to go any farther from town. "It will definitely put the finishing touches on fishing around here," he said. He wonders if the local government is doing all it can. City leaders don't seem to be talking about solutions, like dynamiting the glacial moraine. "Well, I'd like to see something set up to blow it out of there. I don't know how they could blow it out or if they could, but that's what I'd like to see," he said.

There was talk of that in 1986 when the ice last closed off the channel. It burst open on its own five months later, but Yakutat resident Ray Sensmeier said before it did, people had all kinds of ideas. "There were different scenarios that were discussed, like drilling a hole clear through the mountain maybe even using a nuclear device to blow it up. But it's a tremendous amount of ice," he said.

No one seriously considered going nuclear, but scientists say that's the kind of brute force that would be needed. Stretching more than 100 kilometers back into Canada, hundreds of meters deep, the Hubbard Glacier goes where it wants to go, in an ebb and flow that is eons old. In fact, said Mr. Sensmeier, his Tlingit ancestors settled these lands a thousand years ago, after crossing over the ice that once covered much of the area. He believes, and biologists agree, that over the long term, a new river channel would provide more and better spawning habitat for salmon. "I think the elders would say that Mother Nature is taking care of our problem and it will give the river a rest," he said.

As scientists keep close watch on the movements of the glacier, they are preparing for the worst. So is the city of Yakutat. They are already asking for state assistance in staving off what they fear will be both an ecological and economic disaster.