Returning to a Ghost Wilderness Near a Southeast Alaska Glacier for an In-Depth Investigation


La Perros Glacier – During our first lunch at a blue-gravel campsite near this Alaska glacier, a French explorer, named after scientist Ben Gagliotti, and I had a visitor.

As we sat down on the bleached slab of wood, I held a rectangular cracker in my left hand with peanut butter smeared over it.

We heard a loud sound. A bird hovered in front of my firecrackers. As I held still, the hummingbird double-checked the peanut butter with the beak of its needle. The cracker tickled my fingers and transferred the vibrations to my left hand.

As the bird chimed in, I looked to Ben to confirm the experience.

“I think you have superpowers now,” he said.

A rufous hummingbird visits a campsite near La Perros Glacier on the outer Pacific Coast of Glacier Bay National Park and preserve. (Photo by Ned Rozelle)

So began our 11-day trip to this glacier on the outer shores of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. It is the location of many bears, the thunder of falling blue snow and a thumb-sized bird that got its first taste of peanut butter.

Gagliotti was there to continue the search for a “ghost forest” that he and others had discovered a few years earlier. He studies pristine lands for his job as an ecologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Water and Environmental Research Center.

A few hundred yards from the swollen tongue of La Parous Glacier is this ghost forest, where we camped.

We suspended our food in dry bags using a rope that we threw over a thick brown stem of what was once a giant Sitka spruce, with thousands of vibrant green needles. before the glacier passed over it.

Gagliotti and his colleagues – including Dan Mann of the UAF and Greg Wills of the College of Wooster in Ohio – used tree corers to learn when these trees died, which told them how long ago glaciers produced powerful stems. was upgraded to shear.

The scientists matched the growth rings with those of the still-living rainforest trees. They found that the La Perouse glacier had bulldozed these trees sometime between 1850 and 1866.

Ben Gagliotti visits a haunted forest near the tongue of the La Perros glacier, which passed over trees during the Civil War. (Photo by Ned Rozelle)

After a year of pandemic-related absences, Gagliotti was excited to bring the giant boulders of an outlet creek back up to La Perros Glacier. Explorer William Dale named the glacier in 1874 for the French ship commander, who sailed here in 1786. La Perros fled to Alaska shortly after losing 21 men to tidal currents at the mouth of nearby Litua Bay. He named the island in the Gulf of Cenoth, which means “empty tomb.”

Gagliotti wanted to point out that these trees, which perish during periods of cold known as the Little Ice Age, can tell us how forests respond to extreme changes in climate. Not only the warmth we are feeling now, but extreme temperature fluctuations that have increased several times in the past.

The dead trees we camped among—some of them 600 years old when glaciers cut them down—have a long-standing record in their growth rings. Scientists compare them to records stored in living trees, among them giant spruce, hemlock and Alaskan yellow cedar that sprout long enough to be safe from glacier advances.

Gagliotti will use dendrochronology—the pencil-thin cores of living and dead trees as well as the slices of dead cedar he removed with a handsaw—to see how trees react to temperature changes caused by the proximity of always-moving ice. Huh.

In a hummingbird campsite of green dead, brown trees and fine gravel shaded by some pioneer plants, we often felt the cool breath of a nearby glacier; In the middle of summer, we ate dinner wearing woolen cs.

Gagliotti thinks that glacier retreat, coupled with the recent warming of Alaska’s air temperatures, could be a double dose of the increased heat that trees are responding to. Their response could be a predictor of how trees across the Southeast are responding to global warming and its potential acceleration.

To gather information, Gagliotti and I took a tour of the dense, soft, slippery rainforest a few years ago to collect dead trees and temperature sensors installed in the ground. He also rooted a few dozen trees, and, with the handsaw blades of Jenny’s steel, would cut some of the wooden biscuits he would bring back to the UAF to study in detail.

Above the sky light and blue with hints of gray, we took our close encounter with the hummingbird as a promise of good things ahead. We had 11 more days to spend at a place with no boot print except our own Xtratufs.

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