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At Alaska's most popular national park, climate change threatens the only road in and out

·9 min read

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska - Denali National Park has just one road in and out. And each year, hundreds of thousands of visitors fill the park's trademark buses for tours, hoping for a glimpse of a wolf or a brown bear in the shadow of North America's highest peak.

The road's 92-mile route winds up, over and around a series of sheer mountain passes before dead-ending at an old mining community at its westernmost point. When it was built, designers made what seemed like a reasonable assumption that worked for nearly a century: the mountainsides supporting the road would be stable.

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But it turns out that at one of the road's most precipitous points, a hidden menace was lurking under the surface.

And it has woken up.

Halfway along the route, as the road curls past the steep cliffs and chutes of Polychrome Pass, park scientists have discovered that a rocky glacier lies underneath it. Warming temperatures are accelerating the glacier's movement downhill, carrying 300 feet of road bed with it and jeopardizing continued access to some of the park's key attractions.

In August, the slide prompted park managers to close the road just short of the halfway point, forcing lodges on the far side to conduct a costly evacuation and end their summer tourist season early. This week, they announced the closure would continue through the entire summer of 2022.

Federal park officials now say they're analyzing a $53 million plan to bridge the creeping pile of earth, with Congress poised to approve the money.

But for at least the next few years, the slow-moving landslide will interfere with one of Denali's prized tourist sites. And as continued warming destabilizes other key planks in Alaska's economy and threatens its infrastructure, the state's elected leaders continue promoting the oil development that is helping to fuel the problem.

Alaska ranks as the nation's fastest-warming state, and it gets roughly one-fourth of its discretionary spending from oil and gas revenue. And as its senior senator, few officials embody this tension more than Republican Lisa Murkowski.

In an August Facebook post, Murkowski touted her work to secure federal money to fix the landslide. And less than a week later, her campaign scheduled a political fundraiser at the Anchorage home of the top Alaska executive of oil company ConocoPhillips - the state's top crude oil producer.

Murkowski and the rest of Alaska's congressional delegation have blasted the Biden administration's moves to block oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and support expanding drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska through ConocoPhillips' Willow Project.

Climate activists in Murkowski's home state argue that those efforts are incompatible with a recent International Energy Agency report that says there's no room for new oil fields if the world hopes to reach a "net zero" energy system by 2050 - a target the world must hit to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

"She'll say climate change is real and that it's human-caused," said Emily Sullivan, an Alaska climate organizer who lives part-time in the Denali area. "But the words are hollow if she continues to pursue new extraction projects."

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, R, has questioned the scientific consensus that human-caused emissions are driving global warming. But Murkowski has taken a more moderate approach and accepts that the burning of fossil fuels plays a role.

In a phone interview, Murkowski rejected the idea of an inconsistency between her work to address global warming's impacts on Alaska and her oil company ties, describing the industry as a key player in the transition to a lower-carbon future.

"You need to be working with the industry. You need to be working with the private sector. You need to be working with academia. You need to be working with the environmental groups - we all need to be working together," she said. "Sometimes I think all we want to do is fight and bicker and prove that we can't get things done."

Alaska's political leaders have supported some climate-friendly policies. Dunleavy has solicited investments in green energy from companies outside his state, and his administration is studying whether it can leverage state forests to sell carbon credits.

Murkowski helped frame major energy legislation approved by Congress last year that puts hundreds of millions of dollars toward wind, solar, tidal and geothermal power, along with carbon capture technology.

But critics say that they aren't moving urgently enough to stave off major climate impacts in the state. One study by University of Alaska Anchorage professors predicts that global warming could cost the state more than $500 million a year over the next few decades, or roughly 1% of its gross domestic product.

"The only word that accurately describes this is hypocrisy - to say, 'Human-caused climate change is real and we need to tackle it,' but then to push for these specific policies that exacerbate it," said Sullivan, the climate organizer. "It creates a false solution."

Denali's visitor industry, which park officials say generates more than $600 million a year in local spending, is not the only economic sector being hit by climate change in Alaska.

The trans-Alaska pipeline, which carries nearly 5% of the nation's daily oil production, has been affected by thawing permafrost and flooding, requiring its owners to invest in costly repairs.

In a warming Bering Sea, federal scientists are reporting precipitous declines in crab stocks that could cost fishermen tens of millions of dollars in harvests. And in September, Alaska Native groups asked Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to declare a fisheries disaster given the collapse in the Yukon River's salmon population - a crucial subsistence harvest for the region that also fuels a small commercial fishery.

North Slope oil companies, meanwhile, are engineering projects to include more chilling devices to help insulate the tundra their infrastructure sits on from the effects of climate change. And in response to permafrost thaw, one of Alaska's largest mines recently spent $19 million on upgrades to its wastewater treatment system.

The Denali landslide is one of Alaska's most visible climate impacts - one that Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate panel overseeing the National Park Service's budget, has seen firsthand.

"I just kept looking up at that landslide area and down where it passes, and how narrow that road was and how much it had slipped from the year prior," she said. "And I tell you: I just wanted to get out of there."

Murkowski, along with park officials, stress that risks to tourists are low. And even with the park road closed at Polychrome Pass, visitors can still ride buses halfway into the park and turn around short of the landslide.

But it will likely be at least two years before a bridge can be built that will return the park's busy tourist ecosystem to normalcy.

At Denali, park managers say instability at a spot known as Pretty Rocks, has long been a minor nuisance.

In that area, the dirt road bed is cut into a shelf on the mountainside. And Denali scientists have discovered that at Pretty Rocks, a 300-foot stretch sits atop what's called a rock glacier - ice mixed in with a large amount of rocky debris.

For decades, the rock glacier slid downhill just a few inches a year, creating small cracks in the road that required only sporadic maintenance. But in recent years, amid record warmth and rainfall, the glacier's descent has sped up dramatically.

During the tourist season, maintenance crews have kept the road level by dumping gravel onto the slide. But the road shuts down for months each winter. And without the added gravel, the glacier has begun carrying the 300-foot shelf multiple feet downhill each offseason - detaching it at both ends from the rest of the road and leaving nearly cliff-steep slopes where it once connected.

The road typically stays open to its western end through mid-September. But by August this year, the movement had accelerated to more than a foot per day, forcing park managers to cut off access to Polychrome Pass a month early.

At a site visit last month, as rockfall tumbled down into a ditch on the uphill side of the road, park officials wearing hard hats described their maintenance crews' intense efforts to keep traffic moving before the closure. Just before the decision was made to close the road, dump trucks were delivering dozens of loads of gravel to the site each week, with periodic breaks to allow buses through. (The road is closed to most private vehicle traffic during the summer season.)

"It just reached this point where it becomes unsustainable," said Matt Shaefer, Denali's top maintenance official. "You're kind of running on a treadmill, but going backwards."

The closure caused major disruptions to the park's tourism industry, and, combined with an impending snowstorm, left the lodges at the western end of the road scrambling to evacuate guests.

"We informed them during breakfast, and told them they had 45 minutes to go gather their things," said Simon Hamm, co-owner of the high-end Camp Denali lodge, which evacuated 30 guests. (Their consolation prize: Witnessing a wolf take down a caribou on their drive out.)

The road closure cut off the last two weeks of the lodge's short season, costing it roughly $250,000 in lost business, stranding it with excess supplies and food and sending seasonal workers home early. Those losses rippled out to the regional economy, as the business pays bed taxes to the local borough and buys locally harvested food, like salmon and grains.

After less than two months without maintenance this fall, the 300-foot section of road has fallen some 30 feet, according to park managers.

They're working urgently to advance construction of the bridge over the landslide. But it will likely be at least two years before it can open, leaving some Denali tourism businesses facing continuing uncertainty as they recover from a difficult coronavirus pandemic.

Hamm is reluctantly considering whether to start bringing in lodge guests by air.

Scientists say they expect warming to exacerbate problems along the Denali road, in addition to the Pretty Rocks landslide.

Park managers have identified more than 140 "unstable slopes" on the route. And some of those are likely to be affected by the widespread permafrost thaw predicted to happen throughout Denali in the coming decades.

"It's highly likely that we will see mass movement events affecting the road in a very expensive way," said Louise Farquharson, an Arctic geologist and research professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. "This isn't a one and done."

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