Defrosting Seward’s Icebox: Climate Change and Museums in Alaska

Josh Pletcher ’21

Students: Josh Pletcher ’21 and Alan Cohn ’22
Research Mentors: Lisa Tabak and Dustin Reichard (OWU Department of Biological Sciences)

Climate change is a global phenomenon most noticeably expressed by the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers. Alaska is the northernmost state in the Union and is home to more glaciers and sea ice than any other state, making the effects of climate change much more drastic. Museums, zoos, and national parks are an important aspect of communicating the science behind climate change to the general public. We went to Alaska for two weeks to examine how museums and other institutions present climate change to the general public in places such as Seward, Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks.

Climate change is an emerging threat to ecosystems and communities worldwide. The effects of climate change are most striking in the polar and subpolar regions, such as the State of Alaska, where melting glaciers and sea ice directly impact local landscapes, wildlife, and human settlements. We travelled to Alaska to see how zoos, museums, and national parks are reacting to climate change and how they are presenting it to the general public. We visited Seward, Anchorage, Denali, and Fairbanks. Seward is the coastal terminus of the Alaska Railroad and headquarters of Kenai Fjords National Park. Anchorage is Alaska’s largest city and home to the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska Zoo, and within a short drive of the Portage Glacier and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Denali National Park encompasses 6 million acres including North America’s tallest peak Mount Denali and is inhabited by black and grizzly bears, moose, Dall’s sheep, and herds of caribou. Fairbanks is Alaska’s second largest city and the location of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum of the North and the Large Animal Research Station. Also nearby is the United States Army Corps of Engineers Permafrost Tunnel.

Counter to our expectations (as of August 8 at least), climate change was not as prominently discussed in museums or zoos. And while the visitor’s centers of the national parks may have discussed it more in depth, these were unfortunately closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From what we did manage to find, some of the more relevant effects of climate change in Alaska included thawing permafrost creating “rollercoaster roads”, glacial retreat, and shifting native species such as caribou farther north and allowing invasive species like the spruce bark beetle to expand northwards.