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A Really Big Chill Comes to Alaska

updated 09/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even from half a mile away the Hubbard Glacier sounds like a giant angered at being awakened from a long slumber. Six miles wide, 92 miles long and 30 stories high, it creaks and moans under its enormous weight. Huge 200-foot slabs of aqua-blue ice crack off its edge like brittle fingers and splash into the frigid waters of Alaska's Yakutat Bay. "The glacier is a living thing," says William Thomas, 75, an elder of the Tlingit Indian tribe who has lived in Yakutat, the closest town, since he was 6. "My father told me that if you laugh at it, the glacier will chase you. And if you make it mad, it growls like a bear. Right now the glacier is angry, but I'm not sure why."

Neither is anyone else, although many, including the U.S. Forestry Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, are interested. What is certain is that the Hubbard, the third largest glacier on the North American continent, has been on the move this year, surging as much as 40 feet a day, which is half the distance it normally covers in a year. In its path lay the opening to the Russell Fjord, a pristine seawater inlet that the moving ice, pushing ahead of it a large moraine of dirt and rock, closed in May and turned into Russell Lake. Silty, cream-colored Russell Lake is now believed to be the largest glacially dammed lake in the world. Trapped behind the new ice wall that blocks their exit to the sea, dozens of porpoises and seals face certain death, as the shrimp and herring they depend upon will not survive in the increasingly freshwater lake. More worrisome still to the locals is the possibility that the lake, which has risen 70 feet in four months, may eventually overflow its banks and spill into the headwaters of the crystalline Situk River, one of the world's premier salmon fisheries and the economic lifeblood of the 450-odd people who live in tiny Yakutat.

Thus the irritation of the townsfolk at the scientists who have flocked to the area but done little to conceal their enthusiasm for the surge, which they regard as a unique opportunity to study glacial movements, the mix of salt water and fresh water in Russell Lake, and so on. A few weeks back, at a meeting in Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, glaciologist Dr. Larry Mayo of the U.S. Geological Survey informed the people of Yakutat that the surge "was the most exciting geological event in North America."

Exciting to whom, the incredulous townsfolk wanted to know. "I think these people who are doing their studies are just out to get their names in the history book," says Fred Henry, 42, a Tlingit (pronounced KLIN-kit)and Situk fisherman who is the son of a local chief. Says Diane Kline, co-owner of the Glacier Bear Lodge, "I feel like a stepchild to all those agencies working on this. The Forest Service is worrying about the forest. The Fish and Game people are worried about the animals. But I'm wondering, Who cares if my business drops out of sight?"

Yakutat is not an easy place to live under normal conditions. Winter brings fierce snowstorms that roar out of the Gulf of Alaska and temperatures that plummet to-20°F. Settled by Russian fur trappers in the 1800s, the town itself is nothing to write home about—three bars, a bank and a handful of stores. Even residents like to joke that the most exciting activity in town is a trip to the dump to watch the bears go through the garbage. Yet on clear winter nights, when the sun is sending out solar flares, the northern lights fire the sky. Come summer, the moose and bear feed in plain view out by the Situk, even as bald eagles, back dropped by the majestic 18,000-foot Saint Elias Mountains, sweep over the spruce pines. Then, of course, there's the salmon—sockeye, coho and silver—as well as steelhead trout.

Right now, the Situk is a system of slow-flowing, clear streams with pebble bottoms—perfect for the salmon and steelhead that come in from the sea each spring and summer to spawn. When, and if, Russell Lake overflows, glaciologist Mayo estimates that the river would increase its flow twentyfold, making it impossible for even the hardiest salmon to make the yearly run upstream from the Gulf of Alaska. Were the river to become a silty torrent, Peter and Diane Kline, both 51, who play host at their lodge to 1,500 sport fishermen a year, would be out of business. Moreover, the rental car company that serves those fishermen would close and the local gas station would be sent reeling, as would the bank and the grocery and hardware stores. Nor would the hardship be purely economic. For many, especially the Tlingit, who make up half the Yakutat population, losing the river would mean losing an old friend. "I was born in one of the Tlingit log cabins on that river," says Fred Henry. "My father was born there, too, and my grandfather is buried there. If my dad doesn't have fishing to look forward to, he may die. It's what he lives for."

The demise of the Situk is not certain. No one—scientist or Indian—knows what's going to happen. In the best scenario, the lake would eventually pour over the top of the 92-foot ice dam. The rushing water would erode the glacier, clearing the passage to the sea, and the lake would once more become a fjord. At worst, the glacier would continue to flex its muscle; it would buckle upwards an additional hundred feet or more. Then the lake would rise some 185 feet above sea level, at which point it would flood its banks and corrupt the Situk.

In recent weeks, the surge of the glacier has slowed to about 23 feet a day. But once a glacier begins its advance, which the Hubbard did 90 years ago, scientists say there is no telling when it will stop. Scientists are realists, but fishermen are dreamers. Tom Ma-lone, 57, a local shrimper who once rowed his 26-foot boat 30 miles through Russell Fjord after the engine conked out, says, "All we need to do is get a six-inch pump into the new lake. Once we get some water trickling over the top of the glacier, she'll go in no time." Still other residents have suggested that the Army Corps of Engineers be called in, given a few sticks of dynamite and told to blow the works into cocktail ice cubes....

Sitting in the dining room of her lodge, Diane Kline is in a less expansive mood. She smokes her cigarettes and looks scared. "We've put our blood and tears into this place," she says. "There are people who have been with me since the day we opened. What's going to happen to them if we shut down? I don't even know if there's going to be a season next year. Some people want to make reservations, and I just don't know what to tell them. I feel like I'm teetering on the edge of something." Diane pauses, then continues. "We've always had our worries about a Holiday Inn coming in here, but we could handle that." An angry glacier is another matter.

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