By Adam Pinsker
Channel 2 News
12:40 PM AKDT, July 20, 2012
Kenai Fjords National Park is one of Alaska's smallest national parks and one of the newest in America's national park system, but don't be deceived within its boundaries you'll find the Harding Ice Field. It's the largest ice field in the United States, and includes the Aialik Glacier.
“It's the largest tidewater glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park,” said Kenai Fjords Tours captain Chris Overbeck. “In no matter what weather, it's stunning in its visual presentation, it's active and it's just incredible.”
Overbeck has made quite a few runs to this glacier during his 15 years as a tour guide along these fjords.
“We may see Steller sea lions, humpback whales, possibly orcas, a wide variety of open ocean seabirds,” Overbeck said.
Many of those animals wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the Aialik and several other glaciers you'll find nestled within the fjords. The cool waters from the glaciers combine with warm ocean saltwater to provide a sea full of food for a vast array of species.
"That helps the phytoplankton bloom -- that happens every summer with our long hours of daylight, giving us an abundance of food that attracts an abundance of animals, like the humpback whale," said National Park Service Ranger Colleen Kelly.
The humpbacks travel from Hawaii in the summer to feed in the waters of Kenai.
Most of the park has remained untouched by man, save for a ranger's station at Fox Island. However, man has had a negative impact on the wildlife here, from the Russian fur trade hundreds of years ago to the Exxon Valdez disaster nearly a quarter-century ago.
Still, the animals remain resilient.
"The sea otter, their numbers of course took a dip during the oil spill in 1989, but thankfully we're seeing an increase there," Kelly said. "The humpback whales that are here that I mentioned, their numbers are finally rebounding."
Humpback whales are listed as endangered species and the National Park Service says there are only 30,000 to 40,000 of them left, including 7,000 in and around Alaska.
The park is facing another challenge that's much greater.
"Some glaciers have retreated a distance of 14 miles or greater, some have had a smaller rate of retreat," Kelly said.
Kelly says researchers are comparing pictures of these glaciers from a hundred years ago and seeing a dramatic difference.
Debate continues on whether global warming is causing excessive melting. Other theories point to erosion of the underwater marine ecosystem.
Those issues are not immediately visible to the thousands of tourists who pay hundreds of dollars for a chance to see a moment in glacial history, when torrents of ice calve into the water.
Overbeck says he wouldn't trade his job for the world, and who could blame him -- the park is one of the most unique landscapes on Earth.
"For some people who may have saved up for quite a while, and waited a long time for their chance to come to Alaska to see this, for them to get off and say it was one of the best days of their life, well, then you know you're in the right place," Overbeck said.
Kenai Fjords National Park came into existence under the Alaska National Interest Land Act that was signed into law by President Carter in 1980.
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