SEWARD, Alaska — President Obama has often complained that Congress moves at a glacial pace, and on Tuesday saw a glacier that might be moving a bit faster than some pieces of legislation.
Standing near the foot of the Exit Glacier, which has receded 1.25 miles since 1815 and 187 feet last year alone, Obama said “this is as good of a signpost of what we’re dealing with it comes to climate change as just about anything.”
It was the second day of a trip melding a warning message about climate change and visits to some of the nation’s most beautiful spots. In front of a gravelly creek bed, he said that when glaciers retreat, the water runs down and raises sea levels, altering the flora and fauna of the park.
“It is spectacular though,” he said, sporting his aviator sunglasses. “We want to make sure that our grandkids can see this.” Earlier he said it “beats being in the office.”
The president traveled here by helicopter from Anchorage and, dressed in hiking shoes, black slacks and a greenish-gray Under Armour jacket, he went on to take a short hike up to the face of Exit Glacier, a massive two-mile-long ice block that flows down from the larger Harding Icefield.
Starting even before the park station, there are markers recording the years when the glacier extended further than it does today, beginning with the 1800s and moving up over the more than one mile of ferns, cottonwoods and alders that have grown up where the glacier once stood. Obama stopped for a moment just past the 1951 marker.
“What it indicates, because of the changing patterns of winter and less snow and longer, hotter summers, is how rapidly the glacier is receding. It sends a message,” Obama said.
“Climate change is the primary driver for the retreat,” said Deborah Kurtz, physical science program manager for Kenai Fjords National Park. She said that the aerial size of the Harding glacier had decreased by about 10 percent since 1950s.
Though the glacier looked like a snow-covered mass from a short distance, up close Obama would be able to see crystals and ice, Kurtz said. Obama also met with Bear Grylls, who was there to film a segment with the president.
In his speech on Monday at the Anchorage conference of ministers and officials from Arctic nations, Obama used a measurement made by one scientist to describe the scale of melting glaciers in Alaska.
“One new study estimates that Alaska’s glaciers alone lose about 75 gigatons — that’s 75 billion tons — of ice each year,” Obama said.
“To put that in perspective, one scientist described a gigaton of ice as a block the size of the National Mall in Washington — from Congress all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, four times as tall as the Washington Monument,” Obama said.
“Now imagine 75 of those ice blocks. That’s what Alaska’s glaciers alone lose each year. The pace of melting is only getting faster,” he said. “It’s now twice what it was between 1950 and 2000 — twice as fast as it was just a little over a decade ago. And it’s one of the reasons why sea levels rose by about eight inches over the last century, and why they’re projected to rise another one to four feet this century.”
Though eager to hammer home his climate message with the approach of the Paris conference in December for countries to pledge greenhouse gas cuts, the president has included a degree of relaxation in Alaska. Rather than rush back to Anchorage on Tuesday afternoon after seeing the Exit Glacier, Obama took a three-hour boat ride from Seward down Resurrection Bay and the forbidding mountains that line it.
Standing aboard the bow of a yellow and green boat named Viewfinder, Obama talking to a park ranger, looked at a wooden house on the shore and called out to reporters in a separate boat, “When I’m not president, you’ll find me over there in that cabin.”
The boat stopped when it came upon a group of Steller sea lions sunbathing on a rock as a black-legged kittiwakes circled overhead.
Finally, the Viewfinder made its last stop in front of Bear Glacier which, at 12 miles is the longest glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park and one of 38 that flow down from the Harding Icefield, park ranger Colleen Kelly said. So far this century, the glacier has receded nearly twice as much as it did from 1888 to 2000.
It has left in its wake a growing fresh-water lake, with enormous icebergs floating in it. Obama called over that “the iceberg is sitting in a lake. Periodically, the icebergs break off from the glacier. Each one is the size of a Costco.”
The president did engage in a bit of politics on Tuesday. Talking about his decision to accelerate delivery of a new icebreaker, Obama mentioned that Sens. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) had “championed” the need for the ship. “The icebreakers are examples of something that we need to get online now. They can’t wait,” he said.
Before heading to Seward, the president also stopped by the Snow City Cafe in Anchorage, owned by that city’s mayor and Democrat Ethan Berkowitz. There he greeted enthusiastic customers. Obama did not order the “obamalettes” or “barackoli” on the menu but asked for the cinnamon rolls and walnut bread instead.
In Seward before his boat tour, Obama stopped at Sweet Darlings gelato and candy shop. There he shook hands with Dan (blood orange gelato) and Luann (peanut butter gelato) Gross from upstate New York. “We had no clue” the president was going to be at the shop, Dan Gross said, noting that they were just visiting the region.
“I’m impressed,” Gross said, “And I’m a Republican.”