The plume of dust on the horizon told us we were almost back at Kluane Lake.
Climate change can be a real pain sometimes, especially if you’re a glacier. The mighty Kaskawulsh, trundling down slowly from the ice fields, casually gnawing the rocks to dust, is shrinking. No surprises there to anyone who knows anything about the state of the world at present. Unfortunately, a shrinking wall of ice isn’t great news for the Slims River, particularly if that wall of ice is the only thing keeping the water flowing. It turns out that this year was one step too far. With no more ice wall to divert the flow into Slims, there is, well, no more Slims. Kluane Lake, the largest lake in the Yukon, is drying up.
Of course, there’s a long way to go yet before it gets that bad. At the moment lake levels are just a meter or two lower than normal. It has its advantages: the rugby field, usually under a foot of water by this time of year, is bone dry. Unfortunately it also means that all the dust from the dry riverbed gets blown onto Kluane Base. Imagine exploding a bag of bread flour in your kitchen and then trying to do the dishes. Something like that.
Dust aside, it’s good to be back at Kluane, not least for the food. After three weeks north of the Arctic circle, arriving back to barbecued moose burgers and sparkling wine is a fairly good way to start the week. Not that this happens every night – we had made it just in time for the Open House, an event showing off the work done here to scientists, government and the public. It turns out Sandra and I had to sing for our supper. Nevertheless, it’s not every day that you get to talk about willow stems to the local politician, so we gave it our best shot. The reviews were good, but I do wonder if the free gin and tonics afterwards helped.
Other than that, Kluane has been full of little surprises. The willows in the common garden are still growing (even now, still growing!). Some of them look like they’ve been sneaking steroids into the soil while we’ve been away: leaves like playing cards, stems like fishing rods. Our little garden was not designed for over a metre of growth in one year – these are supposed to be Arctic willows!
Our latest trip up the plateau was uneventful, tiring (our legs are out of practice) and coloured in orange. Autumn is setting in now; the leaves are falling and the days are darker. No northern lights yet, and the dust is doing its best to keep things that way.
The greatest success this side of Qikiqtaruk was signalled the other day by cheers from the beach and the sweeping and surge of water. The Tony Grabovski pump is finally up and running! The trials and tribulations, the confusion and crises, pump parts and pulled muscles were worth it as the water barrels filled up…quite slowly. Was something wrong? Did it have anything to do with that new fountain in the bushes over there? It turns out that a pesky ground squirrel has extended its culinary curiosity to our lovely new hose. Oh well, one more chapter in the pump saga that will surely be detailed in full in a blog post yet to come.
With time to spare one evening we took a trip along the Alaska Highway to see if the beavers were still about. Several wrong turnings later, despite the straight road, we were once more silently fighting our way through head high ‘dwarf’ birch and settling down in breath-held patience at the lakeside. Our shrub impressions mustn’t have been up to scratch because didn’t have to wait long before the beaver spotted us, making for us with something between curiosity and apprehension. Sandra had her zoom lens this time.
And with Sandra I must also end this post as Team Kluane bids her a sad farewell. Thanks for everything this field season, enjoy Edinburgh for us and we’ll see you soon!
by Team Kluane
Final note (2017): For posterity, the diversion of the Slim River was reported by fellow Kluane scientists as the first case of climate-change driven ‘river piracy’. You can read more in their article in Nature.