Exploring Alaska Navya Pothamsetty

Most people want to do the right thing. However, the "right thing" is often different for different people, whether that be on an individual or community level. The Alaskan Wilderness, brimming with rich, natural beauty, has been the center of many conflicts that affect not only its citizens, but those of the lower 48 and even the entire world.
This intricate pattern on a trunk interior was caused by spruce beetles, who lay eggs underneath the bark of Sitka, white, and Lutz spruce trees. According to the Alaskan Department of Natural Resources, environmental factors such as rising temperatures induce this process prematurely, which greatly affects the Alaskan rainforests. Human activities also increase the incidence of spruce beetle infestations, as damaged trees make for great spruce beetle breeding grounds. The Alaskan Forestry division also mentions that on an indirect level, deforestation plays a large role, as well-intentioned replantations lead to younger, weaker trees that are more susceptible to these beetles.
Devil's Club is a native Alaskan plant many first peoples use for medicinal purposes. While pharmaceutical companies have tried to purchase the "recipe" for the traditional "medicine" involving this planet, indigenous tribes refuse to sell. However, mounting tensions and monetary incentives make this opportunity more appealing as time goes on. If companies are able to harvest this plant, this opens up a Pandora's box of environmental, social, and medical impacts. For example, Devil's Club grows extremely slowly, and removing this endemic species will have large-scale consequences on the Alaskan rainforest.
Spotting a whale is one of the most exhilarating experiences one can have in the Alaskan wilderness. Even if it's just a tail or dorsal fin, there's something really exciting about finally glimpsing one of these magnificent creatures after waiting on the bow of the ship in the cold with your fellow shipmates. Summer is a great time to look for these seasonal migrants in Alaskan waters, as Humpbacks feed in polar regions. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), they swim to warmer waters during the winter to breed and seldom feed, as much less food is available in tropical waters.
While fishing comprises a substantial part of the Alaskan economy, it is under scrutiny for its impact on the environment. This tension between the environment as a public good but also a means of employment is exacerbated by extremes on both sides of the issue. Compromise and explicit commitments from environmentalists, government, and those in the industry are necessary for progress. Without well-intentioned and clearly defined objectives, progress in any avenue is impossible.
"To the lovers of pure wilderness," wrote John Muir, "Alaska is one of the most beautiful places in the world." The Dawes Glacier has retreated significantly since John Muir's visit to Alaska in the late 19th century. Although glaciers typically undergo a cycle of retreat and advancement, research from Columbia University shows a global disruption in the pattern coinciding with the Anthropocene. Excessive glacial melting has a host of consequences, including rising ocean levels and a decrease in fresh water available for plants, wild animals, and humans, according to National Geographic.
Few are unmoved by photos of helpless polar bear cubs floating on tiny pieces of ice. The impacts of climate change seem real and truly consequential in photos and stories where we can recognize large-scale effects. However, these changes don't happen overnight. Instead, they occur little by little, accumulating over time. Instead of waiting until its too late, we should take note of how societal and environmental trends affect our daily lives. The little things—bioindicators, a few degrees' change in temperature, invasive insect species—signal the big changes to come.
Steller sea lions live in rookeries all over the North Pacific. This species has made a remarkable recovery, as it is no longer on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Collaborations between scientists, policymakers, and activists resulted in an identification of causes for decline and a solution for increasing the population. According to the NOAA, Studying sea lions also provided great scientific insight into the marine health of the ecosystems, as changes in prey and habitat will adversely affect these predators.
Two species of puffins live in Alaska: the horned puffin and the tufted puffin, pictured above. These bright and colorful birds are easy to spot while traveling through Alaskan waters. Puffins, like sea lions, are also great bioindicators. Research published in the ICES Journal of Marine Science shows their stomach contents can tell us a lot about pollutants in fish populations, an extremely useful tool for a state that derives much of its income from the fishing industry.
The Inian Islands Institute is a one-of-a-kind center for environmental research and education. Located in Southeast Alaska, both the beauty of the wilderness and changes to the natural world are evident to the residents of this former homestead. The institute's residents have a unique perspective due to their experiential studies and will bring this to their scientific research and advocacy.
This face, depicting mother nature, is part of the Centennial totem pole. Located at Sitka National Historical Park, these totem poles are a reminder of Alaskan culture. The placards located in the park detail the poles' journey from the lower 48—first to St. Louis, then to Portland—back to Alaska, where they now stand in Sitka.
We learn from the past and borrow from the future. We make decisions—either implicitly or explicitly— about what is worth protecting. These choices will be made, but it is important that we are the ones that decide what happens to the places and people we care about.


Navya Pothamsetty

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