Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

We can and should talk about tourism’s negative impacts. But travel, by chance or design, can raise awareness, too.

I’ve been writing about my recent trip to Alaska in bits and pieces, as I’ve reflected on what I saw and experienced. So often, the significance of travel only becomes knowable after we’ve returned to daily life, with its regularity and predictability, its comforting array of known quantities. Against the backdrop of the ordinary, the strangeness of new knowledge stands out, illuminated.

My family took a cruise and land tour in June from Vancouver, along the coast of Alaska, and into the interior from Anchorage to Denali to Fairbanks. We heard about the summer’s wildfires and saw the smoky haze while we were there; through July, the fires continued to rage as the area we’d passed through experienced the driest and hottest July on record. Then, in early August, the rains came, creating flood conditions and record rainfall.

From the cruise ship, we boarded a train bound from the tiny port of Whittier to Talkeetna, just south of Denali. The train-cars were the best sightseeing design I’ve ever encountered: the entire top half of each car was window, an almost-unobstructed bubble giving way to salt-flats, forests, mountains, and sky as we trundled past. Our narrating conductor (for this was part of the tour package, after all) was himself not a native Alaskan. He’d been drawn to the state years ago and had adopted it, enamored — so he said, and it seemed true, as he pointed out so much that we might’ve missed without his direction.

As we crossed the tidal flats, bald eagles flapped alongside us, hunting, and we caught sight of the leading edge of the tide as it came in, a phenomenon known as a “bore tide” — it wasn’t as dramatic as the bore tides in the Bay of Fundy, but it felt like a lucky sight. Now and then, someone in the car would cry “moose!” or “sheep!” and everyone would stand or lean to see, holding cell phones in the air to catch photos or, if you happened to be in the right spot, a video of the hind-end of a moose disappearing into the trees, or of white flecks pinging up the side of a cliff like popcorn. Those gravity-defying Dall sheep! At that point, in mid-June, the air was clear enough that we could see in every direction. Only haze in the distance, pointed out by our tour-guide, gave away the fires that were the start of the largest wildfire burn on record.

But as we knew, wildfires are part of the ecology of places like Alaska’s boreal forest. Lightning strikes often start fires without the help of human pyromaniacs, and with these natural burns, underbrush and debris is cleared out, allowing for more vigorous growth of older trees. Animals, too, can benefit from the clearing of the undergrowth — browsers like moose thrive in forests maintained by cycles of growth and moderate fire.

That natural balance has been thrown off-kilter now by global climate change.

This summer, the hazy smoke in the distance as our train made its way north alerted us to the predicament — a combination of warmer-than-normal temperatures and drier air. By the end of July, boreal forests around the globe would log the most extensive fire-season on record. In such a scenario, the repercussions can be difficult to envision, since the phenomenon of wildfire is normal and natural, and when it isn’t happening in populated areas, the immediate threat to humans is minimal. But the large-scale burning releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as soot, and in some areas, the fires have melted the permafrost, allowing decomposition, which also releases methane and CO2. More greenhouse gasses means more warming — loss of arctic sea-ice, glacial recession, warmer and higher oceans.

What we travelers saw from our spots in observation-cars was a landscape in transition, even as it yielded up for our viewing pleasure the wild animals (“bear!” someone cried, but I missed it) and storied geological features we’d come to see. In one sense, of course, any landscape on Earth is changing, always in transition, as, by definition, any living system is. This one in particular — this northern swath of the planet, tundra and taiga and ice sheets — is changing faster now than it has since humans have paid attention. And we are part of that acceleration, with our cruise-ships and our dependence on cars and our mass cultivation of livestock for consumption.

I wasn’t unaware of the effects of climate-change before I went to Alaska this summer. Where I live has warmed up and become more unpredictable, too. But having Alaska on my radar as a real place rather than a setting in some stories I’ve read has made me follow the progress of the wildfires and the floods that have followed more closely. I’m better equipped now to understand that extreme conditions are fueled by an average of two degrees of warming in the arctic ecosystems worldwide that have now recorded their warmest summer. While I’m conscious of the role travel itself plays in global warming, I still believe that the benefits outweigh the emissions in the intricate calculus involved in doing the right thing, which starts with acknowledging that there’s a problem.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.