A Few Degrees of Separation

February 09, 2014 Posted by: Patty Del Vecchio
An area of wilderness is… defined as …an area of undeveloped …land retaining its primeval character and influence…”  Wilderness Act, 1964, Sec. 2 (c).  

A Few Degrees of Separation

Just a few degrees change in temperature can mean the difference between sailing along on snow and ice, or wallowing in slush and overflow. We have had a very warm January with temperatures rarely below zero and many days soaring above 32 degrees. And while it’s not unusual to have a “Chinook”–our word for warm southerly winds – they usually only last a few days and then we get on with our normal wintery temperatures of 10, 20, 30 and 40 degrees  Fahrenheit below zero.  Not this year!

brown landscape, devoid of snow but for a single trail leading toward mountains
Kennels Ranger, Lauren Gomes, pushes her sled up a thin ribbon of dwindling white snow. (NPS Photo/Jen Raffaeli)

It’s no doubt this winter has been a warm one here in Alaska. Last week four kennels rangers and 27 dogs mustered to head out on our scheduled 100 mile patrol into the Denali Wilderness. We left headquarters in a temperature of plus 38 degrees Fahrenheit and pouring rain with a forecast for higher temperatures to come. We wondered if this was a normal Chinook, or something bigger—perhaps a result of ongoing climate change?
Soon, the rain abated and the skies turned a brilliant blue but still the warm winds blew and we watched most of the winter’s snow disappear under our sled runners.

As we pushed ourselves and our teams deeper into the designated wilderness on a dwindling snow pack, then ice, and then finally tundra, rock and mud, we were able to look at the log books kept at each of the patrol cabins that we stopped at each night. There we found accounts of temps in the plus 30s and 40s in years past, but nothing as prolonged as this year and nothing as high. On January 25th, 2014 we set a record of 52 degrees,  the highest January temperature seen in the park during the 92 year history of weather recording by park staff.

a sled on a dirt road, dogs out in front
Sled runners are not designed to glide across muddy gravel. On the Tek Flats we jumped off of our sleds and ran next our teams to travel more efficiently. (NPS photo/Jayme Dittmar)

Of course, any climate scientist will tell you that weather in Alaska varies from year to year, and a single warm spell does not necessarily signify long-term climate change.  But those same scientists are also predicting that these “strange” winter conditions are likely to become more and more common in the years to come, with far-reaching effects on the plants and animals here in Denali. For example, a comparison of photographs taken many years apart has documented a change from grasslands to shrubs, and from shrubs to forest in Denali. Such changes in vegetation alter the type and quality of food available to herbivores such as caribou and moose.  Changes in abundance of these animals will have further effects on the predators - wolves and bears - that depend on them, creating trophic cascades throughout the ecosystem.

winter scenery of a frozen pond, distant, snowy mountains and mostly blue sky
Melted ice ponds and exposed tundra is an unusual sight on the East Fork of the Toklat River in January. (NPS photo/Jayme Dittmar)

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, it is worth reflecting on the limitations as well as the success of that landmark legislation.  One of the many reasons the Wilderness Act was established in 1964... “In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States … and these (lands) shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as wilderness...” The Wilderness Act goes on to define wilderness: “in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

We can draw a line on a map, and regulate everyone’s activities here on the ground within the boundaries. The NPS travels by dogsled rather than motorized transport within the designated 2 million acres of designated Wilderness in Denali.  We follow in the historic footprints and paw-prints of rangers past continuing the tradition of travel by dogsled which began with Harry Karstens in 1922. Our ephemeral snow trails leave the landscape unchanged over the years.  When the summer sun comes and melts our packed trails away, no trace remains of our winter travels with the dogs.

snowy landscape and a sled turned on its side

Sled travel doesn't produce engine emissions, cause erosion or create other permanent impacts—only two fading parallel lines remain as a signature of our passing.  (NPS photo/Patty Del Vecchio)

However, we cannot regulate or escape the effects of actions that are occurring hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the boundaries of this park.  It may surprise some people to realize that coal-fired power plants and the pollution that is produced in countries on the other side of the world might be affecting caribou and wolves in the Denali Wilderness, but those effects are becoming more and more obvious to those of us who live and work here.  While we have designated areas of protected wilderness, we cannot protect these spaces from the impacts that come through the fact that we are all connected. We all share the same air, water, and weather systems and these things do not recognize man-made boundary lines drawn on a map. The strange weather that everyone has been experiencing in the “lower 48” with extreme snow and cold is connected to the strange weather that Alaskans are experiencing with unusual warmth and rain. If Alaska’s winters grow increasingly warmer there will be a profound impact on Alaska’s ecosystems, as well as the kennels' ability to travel by dog team and do our work in Denali’s wilderness.  

As the dogs and kennels rangers of Denali National Park work to preserve the Wilderness of Denali, so does anyone who makes the effort to conserve energy and reduce emissions of “greenhouse gasses,” no matter how far away they live. We all can take pride in helping to protect the plants and animals in Denali’s Wilderness whether we are out on patrol or reducing and recycling in our own neighborhoods.

a person with two grey-colored huskies, looking out over a snowy forest and distant, snowy mountains
The sunrise illuminates Mt. McKinley while Kennels Ranger, Jen Raffaeli, rests her team. (NPS Photo/Jayme Dittmar)

Read more on the impacts of climate change in Alaska in the Alaska Park Science Journal.
Learn more about climate change and wilderness on wilderness.net.

Canine Ranger Superstars

All the NPS sled dogs pulled their weight this patrol, taking the constantly changing and challenging conditions in stride! Aliqsi and Spur are especially recognized for leading the teams through a nonexistent trail of mud, the Tek Flats, on the homestretch back to headquarters.

closeup of a tan and white sled dog, distant snowy mountains under a blue sky with pink-tinged clouds

Aliqsi loves to remind us how cute she is by tilting her head whenever we take her picture. (NPS photo/Jayme Dittmar)

Last updated: July 18, 2016

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