The largest national park in America is one few have ever heard of, and even fewer have visited. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve encompasses 13.2 million acres of glaciers and forests in the southeast of Alaska. Mark Jenkins, writer-in-residence at the University of Wyoming, decided to journey into the big unknown of the park’s landscape for Smithsonian magazine to capture what it looks like today, knowing that in 10 years, it would look entirely different because of climate change. What he saw was absolutely breathtaking, in more ways than one.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is massive – it could fit Yosemite, Yellowstone and the entire country of Switzerland within its borders. But even though it is the biggest park in the country, it gets just 70,000 visitors a year. In contrast, Yellowstone gets 4 million. The park holds 3,000 glaciers, some of the largest in the country, and no one knows them better than the 250 residents of McCarthy, a bush down tucked deep in the park that isn’t accessible by car.
Jenkins met with some of the residents of McCarthy, and they showed him the changing landscape, giving him a once-in-a-lifetime tour of the glaciers and rivers that make up the landscape. “Bottom line, the glacial rivers are growing and the glaciers are retreating and diminishing,” Mark Vail, a resident since 1977 told Jenkins. “The Kennicott Glacier has retreated over half a mile since I first came here. Ablation has shrunk the height of the glacier by hundreds of feet in the last century.”
Jenkins found the most obvious signs of these changes when he visited the nearby mining town of Kennecott. Photographs from Kennecott’s heyday a century ago show the massive Kennicott Glacier towering over the mill, but today the glacier sits below the mill. Jenkins talked to glaciologist Michael Loso while dining in McCarthy’s Potato restaurant. He told Jenkins about Iceberg Lake, which suddenly vanished in 1999. Loso explained that the resulting open land left by the lake allowed scientists to determine what the lake looked like even during warming periods in the past. The news was grim: “They’re an archival record that proves there was no catastrophic lake drainage, no jokulhlaup, even during the Medieval Warming Period,” he said. “When Iceberg Lake vanished, it was a big shock. It was a threshold event, not incremental, but sudden. That’s nature at a tipping point.”
To read the rest of the story, and to view the astonishing photos that Nathaniel Wilder took on his journey with Jenkins, check out Smithsonian magazine.