Executive Summary

 

The Bering Glacier is the largest and longest glacier in continental North America, with an area of approximately 5,175 square kilometers, and a length of 190 km. It is also the largest surging glacier in America, having surged at least five times during the twentieth century. The last great surge occurred in 1993-95. Bering Glacier alone covers more than 6% of the glacier covered area of Alaska and may contain 15-20% of Alaska’s total glacier ice. The entire glacier lies within 100 km of the Gulf of Alaska. The rapid ongoing retreat of the glacier and expansion of Vitus Lake at the glacier terminus has provided opportunities for the establishment of new habitats and new flora and fauna. The post-surge retreat of Bering Glacier has created a dynamic landscape of reticulated and fluted surfaces with subtidal invertebrate fossils, lake sediments, and previously overrun forests.

 

BLM/USGS coordinated investigations of the Bering Glacier System have suggested that the site is biologically and environmentally significant. Paleontological research has documented a diverse assemblage of invertebrate species, preserved forests, and ancient peats, and preliminary botanical studies have identified more than 350 vascular and non-vascular species. The forelands are also known to support a highly diverse vertebrate community: fresh and andromous fishes, three rare subspecies of geese, genetically distinct populations of wolf and goat, and previously undocumented harbor seal haulout. The diversity of fauna and flora in the area around the margins of the Bering Glacier is likely due to the dynamic physical habitat. In contrast to the forelands of most retreating glaciers, in which distance from the glacier reflects both habitat age and climate, the pattern of surges and retreats have created a landscape where local climate and time since glacial cover have effectively decoupled. Within this relatively small region, the impact of habitat age, climate and physical properties on community structure can be studied independently over a broad range of habitats. In the limited area around the glacier, habitats vary from newly exposed rocks at close to sea level to 10,000+-year-old moraines at elevations above 5,000 m, and from wet fens to relatively dry sub-alpine forests. Outcrops and corings reveal sediments that record the interactions of climate, sea level and earthquake induced land movements over the past few thousand years.

 

The last 100 years have brought significant changes to the number of people and their methods of access to the Bering Glacier area. In the early 1900’s most of the people visiting the glacier were subsistence hunters, fisherman, trappers, and miners looking for gold. World War II and the Cold War brought the need for large airstrips at Yakutat and Cordova. Oil exploration in the 1960’s created additional development. The 1990’s brought sport fishing and big game hunting cabins into the area. Two public use cabins near Vitus Lake, built in 2002, provide the public with eco-tours access to the area. The passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 began the process of conveying land under BLM administration to Alaska Natives. As part of this process, mineral rights in land near Berg Lake were conveyed to a local Native corporation who in turn sold the rights to an Asian corporation interested in the coal and oil potential. Thus, both oil and gas development have the potential to impact the Bering Glacier region through increased industrialization and traffic in the area.

 

The Bureau of Land Management has developed a new land-use plan for the Glennallen District, which includes the Bering Glacier region. This plan is referred to as the East Alaska Resource Management Plan, and includes key decisions relevant to the management of the Bering Glacier area. These include: vegetation resource management, special status species management, state role in fish and wildlife management, recreation use, OHV use, land use planning and oil, gas, coal, and mineral management. Under the preferred alternative for the East Alaska Resource Management Plan, the Bering Glacier has been designated as a Research Natural Area. Such a designation requires BLM and the stakeholders to develop a step-down management plan that focuses the future of the Bering Glacier toward inventory, research, and educational opportunities.

 

In addition to the new land-use plan for the Bering Glacier region, there are three scientific reasons research on Bering Glacier is urgently needed. First, because the Bering Glacier landscape is being created by the dramatic and catastrophic disintegration of a piedmont ice lobe, it will likely be substantively changed as glacial retreat continues. Second, understanding the interactions between the physical habitat and biological communities in this region will help scientists understand how glacial retreats (now occurring world-wide) are likely to impact local biotic communities. And third, because human activities in the site are increasing due to growing interest by commercial and recreational users, it is likely that there will be impacts on the fragile ecosystems in the area.

 

To address the Bering Glacier research and land use issues, BLM operates the Bering Glacier field camp each summer. The field program typically starts in early July and runs through the end of August. The camp is located on the edge of Vitus Lake on a former terminal moraine. The camp, complete with refueling airstrip, kitchen and mess tent, command center, and restrooms can comfortably host 25 scientists at a given time. The scientists and their staff sleep in tents or wooden floor huts.

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