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Mendenhall Glacier is one of Alaska’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting more than half a million visitors each year. But climate change that has already caused the glacier to recede dramatically could soon eliminate the dramatic sight of the wall of ice meeting the waters of Mendenhall Lake.

Located in the Mendenhall Valley about 13 miles outside of Juneau, the glacier is the most prominent feature in the Tongass National Forest, with its own visitor center and trails leading to viewpoints to observe glacial ice calving into the lake. The glacier has been retreating since the end of the Little Ice Age in the 1700s, but the melting has accelerated in the last century. Since 1929, the Mendenhall Glacier has shrunk by 1.75 miles.

In recent weeks, an unprecedented torrent of meltwater from the glacier has flooded parts of Juneau, with runoff from the melting ice filling Mendenhall Lake to historic levels. The glacial ice has already mostly retreated from the shore of the lake, and local tourism officials worry that the day may come when the glacier may not even be visible from the visitor center.

Officials at the Tongass National Forest say that the retreating ice has cast a pall over plans to invest in new trails, parking, and other facilities at the visitor center. “We did talk about, ‘Is it worth the investment in the facilities if the glacier does go out of sight?’” Tristan Fluharty, the forest’s Juneau district ranger, told the Associated Press. “Would we still get the same amount of visitation?”

According to AP, about 700,000 people are expected to visit the glacier this year, with visitation projections topping one million by 2050. By that time, Mendenhall Glacier almost certainly will have continued its retreat, although experts say that even at the current rate of melting it will be century or more before the glacier disappears entirely.

No Long-Term Industry Impact to Alaska

Alexandra Pierce, tourism manager at the City and Borough of Juneau, tells Recommend that, “The visitor industry has seen minor disruptions—tours on Mendenhall Lake and River are not currently operating. The damage, while awful and significant, was confined to the area directly around the river.

“We don’t anticipate any long-term industry impacts from this specific event. However, we are worried about the impacts of climate change and future flood events. The Alaska experience is driven by our beautiful surroundings and as the environment changes, so does the visitor experience. For example, the Forest Service is in a multi-year planning process to adapt to the Mendenhall receding out of view from the existing visitors center.”

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