I waited two years after I took the LSAT before I applied to law school. I knew I wanted to take my life in a new direction that involved my love of rivers, but I was reluctant to leave a fantastic life as a river guide in southeastern Alaska. However, in the summer of 2006, I guided my first river trips through the Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness, and the magnificence of that particular place struck something deep inside me. The effect was strong enough for me to give up the river guide lifestyle and dedicate my professional life to saving such places.
The Tat-Alsek, as this wilderness is known, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that spans the border of the Yukon Territory and Alaska, a little west and north of Glacier Bay National Park. It’s a land of mileswide glaciers; wolf, moose and bear; mountains rising more than 15,000 feet from sea level; and massive glacially fed rivers. The Alsek River boasts the biggest flows of any river I have boated-routinely more than 100,000 cubic feet per second and with a bed often several miles wide. At times you can hear rocks and small boulders moving on the river bottom as you float over them.
Places like the Tat-Alsek stick with you, which is one reason a recent article jumped out at me: “Climate Change Reroutes a Yukon River in a Geologic Instant.” The topic caught my attention, but as I read the article, I was surprised to discover that the story involved the Alsek River.
We hear about climate change causing rising sea levels, flooding and extreme weather patterns-or the epic water year Idaho is experiencing in contrast to our recent, more frequent drought years. But rivers rerouting themselves?
One of the many glaciers feeding the Alsek is the Kaskawulsh. It’s huge by any standard, stretching up to four miles across. For eons, the glacier primarily drained into the Slims River, which flows north to the Yukon River and on to the Bering Sea. Small communities and cabins dot the banks along the river. These cabins are lakeside vacation cottages in Canada’s Kluane National Park, where the Slims temporarily pools.
Or perhaps I should say communities and cabins used to dot the river’s course. Last May, in just four days, an epic event-never before documented in modern times-occurred. River piracy! The Kaskawulsh Glacier receded so much and so quickly that the flow created by its melt rerouted from the Slims into one of the glacier’s southern tributaries: the Alsek. In short, the Alsek pirated the Slims.
I recently reunited with some of my Alaskan guiding friends, several of whom rowed the Alsek last summer. They said that the additional flow hadn’t altered the Alsek much. Instead it’s the Slims River that has felt the effects-and the loss of water is noticeable. All those lakeside cabins? Their docks now sit high and dry, looking out over a silt-filled landscape, complete with dust storms and associated poor air quality.
The geologic record contains evidence of river piracy that historically would have taken place over hundreds or even thousands of years. But in 2016, due to rapidly warming polar regions, humans saw a gigantic river change direction in front of their eyes over the equivalent of a long weekend.
Unexpected Climate Change Impacts
This event of river piracy helped clarify something I’ve considered a lot recently. Climate change affects us in obvious and not so obvious ways. An obvious example close to home? More severe droughts lead to drier summers, which lead to more frequent wildfires.
A not so obvious example close to home? Changes in our climate make it more difficult to manage our water. In Idaho, irrigators hold water rights that allow them to use water between certain dates each year. What happens when those dates don’t represent the same water conditions they used to? What happens when first and last frost dates slide later and earlier, respectively, in the year? When farmers have fewer irrigation days than they need to grow their crops? When water is available for irrigation, but the days are too short and nights are too long to support certain crops, what happens then? Water rights don’t accommodate any of these changes.
Federal, state and irrigation entities have spent more than a century building Idaho’s water infrastructure (both physical and administrative), and it relies on minimal variations in temperatures and precipitation. In short, we’ve built a water management system that didn’t anticipate climate change. From an irrigation perspective, that may be our biggest hurdle of all. Change is hard, and the status quo is comfortable. And endangered species aside (and that’s a big aside), Idaho has been able to build and manage its way out of its water growing pains without catastrophic effect. But as the Slims/Alsek River piracy illustrates, climate change is bigger than any of us or our historic practices, no matter how much power such practices have traditionally held.
What to Do?
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that climate change doesn’t care about political affiliation or water management frameworks. Our climate is changing, and the change affects our water resources.
Those of us who love water and those of us who need it (in other words, all of us) must urge Idaho’s elected and appointed leaders to address this issue. The Snake River isn’t going to change course over Memorial Day weekend, but it is vulnerable to climate change. And with more than a million people, along with myriad industries and species, relying on the Snake, we must acknowledge its vulnerability and start planning accordingly.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by climate change. It’s a complicated issue, but you can take small steps forward and make a difference. Looking for a good place to start? Learn more about and support ICL’s climate work.