A decade ago this glacier extended past where this image was taken. This melting has negative affects all across the planet. Oceans have risen 6.7″ in the past hundred years because of melting glaciers. In the past decade the speed of this rise has nearly doubled. Should we respond to these changes?

Daniel Lombardi is a freelance photographer who spent the summer of 2016 photographing and thinking about climate change in Alaska. Climbing volcanoes on the Alaskan Peninsula and swimming in clear streams allowed him to photograph the interplay between the geography, rock and ice, and living organisms, like salmon and bears. He hopes his work can illustrate the ways climate change is affecting our most beautiful landscapes and further explain the complex ways ecosystems function.

Once they’ve left the ocean, these sockeye salmon will not eat for the rest of their lives. They are migrating up river where they will reproduce and then die. They carry no baggage on this journey but they bring a bounty of nutrients and calories from the ocean via their flesh. These animals weigh five to ten pounds each and act as the keystone of the ecosystem. More than one hundred vertebrate animals use them as a food source.

The importance of sockeye salmon to this ecosystem is well studied and hard to overestimate. However, the effects climate change could have on these fish is only recently been studied and the exact severity is largely unknown.

The oceans’ lowest pH levels (most acidic) are in the coldest waters, like those found around Alaska, where these fish spend most of their lives.

This is because cold waters can hold more carbon dioxide. Extensive research has linked the decreasing pH levels with rising levels of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere.

Our planet is not solid. The Earth is full of fire and we live on a thin shell above the flames. Frequently the fire breaches the shell, exploding fire down on us. Here we look into the distance at a volcano on the Alaskan peninsula, Mount Mageik. As destructive as volcanoes can be their wrath has edges. A volcano will destroy everything in its path. But its path is not infinite. Life comes back in at the edges of the destruction. With climate change there are no edges. The destruction and affect of changing the entirety of our planet’s atmosphere means that there is nowhere for life to rebound from. Climate change affects the entire planet.
Geologic forces lift minerals into mountains where snow freezes into glaciers on their slopes. The glaciers carve river valleys. The glaciers melt seasonally and the waters carry the nutrients from the mountains to the oceans. The minerals and cold fresh waters support ocean life. As the climate warms and the glaciers disappear ocean life could be negatively affected by the loss of this nutrient cycle.

These wild brown bears are deeply connected to glaciers that are now melting. These fish can contain more than 5,000 calories each – a tremendous food source – allowing these bears to grow far larger than inland bears. The water from the glaciers sustains them and their main food source: salmon. Melting glaciers are just one threat against salmon. Others include warming rivers and ocean acidification. Both are happening because of human greenhouse gas emissions. Without salmon these bears will probably survive but they will not be the same.

Brown Bears have been eliminated from almost everywhere their historic range overlaps with humans. Furthermore, our transportation, industry and agriculture releases greenhouse gasses that dramatically alter the natural systems that the bears depend on…that we depend on. 

Bears used to do this across North America and not just in Alaska. Today only the very wealthy and the very determined get to see this.
If we keep living out of balance with our environment then we can expect bears to become ever more rare. When I first started this project I thought bears would be adaptable enough to avoid the worst of climate change but sadly I’ve found most evidence pointing toward the opposite. But even if bears do adapt, will they still be wild animals?

The glaciers melt. They fall apart and chunks of ice float down stream. We can never put them back together. No one can deny that this is happening. No one wants it to happen. Yet, I still see people slipping into war. We are at the start of a war that will rage across the planet in the coming decades. The war is between the people who want to transition to more sustainable energy and those who want more fossil fuel. I hope the war is short, because the ice is melting, and free of violence, because what is the point of all this if not to protect life?

“It’s like seeing a God at work,” a friend told me after first seeing a big glacier. This ice created the rivers. It shaped the rocks. It sculpted this valley. Its water sustains us. So I see his point.

But this nearly spiritual thing that barely fits in my field of view, let alone in my mind, is shrinking and will eventually disappear unless we radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. So take a picture while you can.

Glacial ice is a beautiful thing. Take any chance you get to see some up close. From a distance glaciers can look white and crunchy, like snow. Up close however, you see how solid and hard the ice is and you see its true color.
The air bubbles trapped in glaciers have been there a long time. So the layers of ice and the bubbles can tell you about earth’s climate and what the air was made of throughout time. It’s amazing really.
As it turns out the planet gets hotter when the atmosphere is full of carbon. The atmosphere contains more carbon now than anytime in at least the past 800,000 years but probably more than in the past 20 million years.

A sea of ice. It can mesmerize you to see it swelling in waves – cracking and booming from somewhere deep. Take a seat and enjoy the view. You can’t stop staring not just because it’s beautiful but because you know it’s disappearing.

This, the Harding ice Field, will be one the last places for our children to view glacial ice. The Harding Ice Field blankets 700 square miles of the Kenai Peninsula and has more than 30 glaciers flowing from its edges. The glaciers are rapidly shrinking, thinning and receding back up to the ice field. The field itself is ever shrinking too but it will last longer than the glaciers. See it before it’s gone.

Pacific Sea Nettle Jellyfish (Chrysaora fuscescens) wash ashore dead – but not because of climate change.

In the past two hundred years, the ocean acidity has increased by about thirty percent. This is caused by humans emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is then absorbed by the ocean, decreasing the ocean’s pH level. Some suspect acidification eventually could help make oceans more hospitable to jellyfish, but there is still much we don’t know. Jellies could come to completely dominate some ecosystems.

Alaska, like most of the planet, broke a lot of records in 2016.

Alaska’s January-July 2016 average temperature of 33.9 degrees Fahrenheit was 8.1 degrees above the long-term (1925-2000) average.

This was the last glacier we visited in Alaska and we almost didn’t hike out to it but eventually worked up the nerve to wade across a cold river to get up close to it.

From solid to liquid. How long was that water frozen? Hundreds, maybe thousands of years? Maybe more? It was melted by burning fossil fuels. There’s still a lot of fossil fuels in the earth. How much longer should we use them?
Cracks and booms mix with the sound of dripping and flowing water. The mighty Portage Glacier is melting because of human caused climate change. The earth should be entering into a slight cooling phase but we have pumped too much carbon into the atmosphere. Now the planet is increasingly too warm for glaciers.

The carbon emissions from humanity’s lavish lifestyles are warming the planet. This increased warmth could be detrimental to sockeye salmon which play a vital role in the ecosystem. I fell in love with these fish this summer. I loved donning the wetsuit and snorkel to swim the river and watch the fish. It was amazing to be a guest in a world I’d never seen before. But I’m afraid that my children may not have the same opportunity.

As the climate warms a loss of snowpack could reduce the amount of water available to salmon which could prevent them from accessing shallow spawning grounds. Additionally, less water often means warmer water for a fish that likes it cold. Warmer summers could already be raising stream temperatures and making salmon more susceptible to predators and disease.

The number of major wild fires, the length of the fire season and the average fire size has all increased many times over since the 1980s. Forest fires can lead to erosion and decrease water quality and clarity in streams. Climate change is also increasing the frequency of severe storms and floods which can wash away salmon eggs and damage or destroy sensitive spawning grounds.

These are just some of the threats facing this keystone species. Perhaps the most significant threat to salmon is ocean acidification. As humans increase the amount of carbon in the atmosphere we also increase the amount in the oceans which makes the oceans more acidic.

About Daniel Lombardi