Sunshine in Ketchikan: The Trouble Ahead

I’d wanted to go to Alaska for a long time. Finally we arranged for a small-craft inner coastal waterway trip on the “Wilderness Adventurer,” from Juneau to Ketchikan for 6 days, to be followed by a road trip from Anchorage to Homer to Denali and return. After 5 days of beautiful weather, kayaking and hiking amid eagles and bears along shorelines and adjacent rain forests of the inner passages, I began to wonder when the more typical rainy weather of the South East Alaskan fjords might commence. Everyone expected overcast skies and spring showers. Rain, wind, and heavy seas were repeatedly forecast but never materialized.

With about 60 educated middle class ‘adventurists’, quite ecologically aware it would seem, there was virtually no conversation about climate change. Surprisingly, one of the guides, in a talk about the micro-climates, flora and fauna of the area, proclaimed that it was company policy to simply describe the patterns observed in the area and that we “are all adults here and you can draw whatever conclusions you want from what you observe.” But it was clear that was not her personal attitude. Wow! Corporate censorship on questions of climate change even from the outfitters of an ecological adventure cruise! The Koch Brothers’ propaganda is feared even in the wilds of Alaska! Economic fear trumps scientific findings once again.

All five days so far have been sunny and in the mid 60s. Highly improbable under “normal” spring weather conditions in the coastal passages of South East Alaska. Look at a map. It’s a prime example of a temperate rain forest, a marine environment with many islands, channels, fjords, glaciers, and rivers, and the wildlife that thrives in such places. First bald eagle(s) I’ve ever seen in the wild, ubiquitous ravens, huge sea stars at low tide observed while kayaking along shorelines. Tropical rain forests have the greatest bio-diversity, but temperate rain forests such as those in South East Alaska have the greatest total bio-mass according to the eco-guides on board. That is due to the typical rainy weather and cold temperatures at this high latitude, unlike the pleasant warm sunny days we’re having here this week.

Everyone on board is so grateful for the weather we’re having, and seem to not connect it to the climate chaos it portends. Dinner conversations reflect quite liberal notions, including those generally related to climate change. Yet, I’ve heard no mention of a possible connection of our momentary personal good fortune to the more catastrophic changes in weather events the world is already experiencing. If this highly educated group can so easily isolate its understanding of climate disruption from everyday experience, then the idea that rational analysis of the now obvious wealth of data and models of accelerating climate disruption past the tipping point can be applied effectively to political decisions seems really far fetched. But we humans so often segment our realms of experience and knowledge.

Of course, we are cut off from Internet and cell phone services because we are far from any towns or cities until we reach Ketchikan in a couple more days. We did picked up wireless access briefly when we stopped at the fishing village of Wrangell for a couple of hours of shore time. But the whole point of the trip was to experience the wilderness in its isolated natural state, from the security of a 145 foot ship capable of navigating the smaller fjords right up to the glacier faces where the big cruise ships with their built-in casinos and gastronomic binges can’t go as they transit from one tourist port to the next. Juneau, where we began our voyage, is overrun by these giant floating hotels that look a little like prison blocks; the town’s streets, of course, are riddled with ‘diamond shops’ and other ‘tourist traps.’

So, maybe we should just enjoy the wilderness while we can. But it does disturb me that a company that conducts ‘eco-tours’ is afraid to even mention the idea of climate change and instructs its guides to be silent on the topic. That seems emblematic of the entire ‘cultural’ problem of the politics of climate change in the industrial nations, right when the most open and honest discussion of the greatest transformation of human behavior we can imagine, is desperately needed.

Postscript: Over the next two weeks, traveling from the Kanai peninsula to Denali, we experienced only two days of light rain. All the locals I asked remarked how unusual it was, and mentioned how exceptionally warm this spring had been. This little anecdote does not prove anything. It is merely consistent with the overwhelming evidence – accumulated by hundreds of scientific studies worldwide over the past two decades – which confirm the certainty of the accelerating increase of climate disruption events toward a catastrophic tipping point beyond which the grave consequences of political stupidity and corporate greed can neither be mitigated nor adapted to. NOAA forecasts rain for Wrangell this weekend.

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