Russell Fiord remains open, but officials wonder for how long

Posted: Friday, June 21, 2002

YAKUTAT (AP) -- As the Hubbard Glacier bears down on Russell Fiord and the economic future of this small coastal fishing town, U.S. Forest Service officials and residents simply wait and wonder what the effects will be.

The advancing glacier remains about 50 meters, or 165 feet, from closing the mouth of the fiord 25 miles north of Yakutat, and in time possibly disrupting fishing in the Situk River system, prized worldwide for its steelhead trout.

The glacier's rapid advance appeared to have been halted, or at least slowed, in recent days. An overflight Thursday by the National Park Service showed little apparent change.

Water continues to gush out of the small mouth of the fiord into Disenchantment Bay. The massive push of water together with floating ice in the bay make boat travel hazardous.

Scientists have long agreed that the glacier will one day close off Russell Fiord and turn it into a freshwater lake that spills out into the Situk basin. There's less agreement on what effect that will have on the town of about 800 people.

''The Situk River is the lifeblood of this community,'' said Forest Service Ranger Tricia O'Conner. ''It will be a very different system.''

The Hubbard Glacier is the largest tidewater glacier in North America and is on a long march south toward Yakutat Bay and the Gulf of Alaska.

That's the furthest the glacier has reached -- at about 1290 A.D. -- and its constant cycle of retreating and advancing has been on the advance since the late 1800s.

The massive 76-mile glacier stretches into Canada and in recent years has attracted scientists and national media attention for its sudden surges.

In 1986, the glacier closed off the fiord for about four months.

The glacier had been moving at an average rate of about 36 feet per day, but its fight with rapid currents spilling into Disenchantment Bay have made it impossible to predict whether it will close the fiord, O'Conner said.

The town is about 35 miles south of Hubbard Glacier and is not threatened by its advance. But many residents there depend on sport and commercial fishing in the Situk basin for their income.

''Those two are about the only economy we have here,'' said Casey Mapes, a commercial fisherman. ''It's going to hurt for a few years.''

There are about 170 commercial fishermen in Yakutat who have been forced by poor salmon prices to fish closer to town, Mapes said. Residents who still live off the land also rely on it for winter subsistence stocks of salmon.

If the glacier forms an ice dam, Russell Fiord is expected to take about a year to rise 131 feet in depth and spill into the basin, changing the river system, O'Conner said.

Mapes said if that happens, residents will have to urge federal officials to open more land in the Tongass National Forest to commercial access. And that's always a tough fight, he said.

The ice dam across the fiord in May 1986 stayed until water pressure blasted it open in October. Scientists had predicted another ice dam by the end of last decade.

It's not certain that the glacier will close off the fiord this time. It's pushed up a gravel moraine ahead of its advance that will more securely close the fiord than past ice dams.

But so far the massive tidal pressure spilling out into Disenchantment Bay has blocked its advance.

This is also the time of year when the glacier should begin its natural withdrawal by calving large pieces of ice off its face, said Jacqueline Lott, park ranger with the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

The recent rapid advance of the glacier has forced forestry officials to begin revising old studies about the effects of another ice dam, O'Conner said.

They plan to use more recent data and mapping technology to study what impact it could have on area fisheries and likely paths of flooding in the basin, she said.

Otherwise, there's very little that can be done to change the course of the glacier's advance.

''This is a natural event. We need to let it run its course and see what happens,'' O'Conner said.

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