The Southeast Alaskan Tree Crisis

If you sail SEAK or even just travel it regularly, you'll notice a distinct event occurring with the tree lines which stands out almost as much as the logging cuts. This change has happened so quickly that there is no stopping it, but we can have hope towards the future and pray for some colder, wetter, winters.

The last few years have been anything but what you would think of as an Alaskan winter. Low snowfall, with far more rain than snow, even into February. And when it did get cold, it stayed dry, severely affecting the snow pack levels, even at high altitudes and near icefields. While my initial reaction to the snowpack is, "summer skiing!", it's environmental impact is actually as deep as is the salmon.

The number one impact is to that of the mainland and island wildlife and flora/fauna. They rely on the nutrients that the melting snowpack distributes throughout the basins as the summer progresses. It's a big reason why in terms of biomass, the Tongass is the most productive environment in the world. The alpine areas of Alaska are so rich with resources, partially from the glaciers which used to live there, and partially because of about a thousand other reasons, that their nutrients provide the vast landscapes with the ability to change from glacial recession with no life on the rocks to full muskeg or new growth in just years.

But by far the most visible change we've seen the last few years is the death of the yellow cedar. This species tends to dominate vast regions of the ABC islands and mainland of northern Southeast AK, especially on the mountainsides. These trees grow insanely fast and are a strong part of secondary succession, but do have a few attributes which make them vulnerable.

While the cedar spread their roots into vast networks ready to scoop up tons of nutrients, the roots themselves are relatively small in diameter, and thus lie pretty shallow in the soil. They're evolved into the most efficient way to grow, but only can do so under 'typical' conditions, the most important of which is a consistent level of snow in the winter and spring. The reason this is so important is because the climate from March through May in Alaska is extremely variable. While barely changing day to day during the summer, these spring months can bring sunny days followed by massive snow dumps or freezing spells.

And with such a shallow root system, they typically rely on the snowpack to insulate themselves from this impending frost. Most of the high-alpine areas in Alaska have year-round snow pack, not only making for some amazing spring skiing, but also spreading nutrients down to the lower elevations, insulating the cedar, and contributing to so many other environmental factors. Without this snowpack until about 2,000 ft, the landscape is not just littered with, but completely scoured by dead trees. It is interesting that you can see exactly where the snow level was in the past year, but also completely disheartening to see such rampant death.

We're shaping up for a good winter and spring this year, but if the trends of the last 8 years of so continue, who knows how widespread the effects of lowered snowpack and environmental change will be.

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