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Hubbard Hubbub Melts Away : Alaska Town Gets Back to Usual Glacial Pace

October 18, 1987|SUE CROSS | Associated Press

YAKUTAT, Alaska — The T-shirts hanging by her cashier's booth at Monti Bay grocery remind Neva Ogle of the brief spurt of publicity that was focused on this tiny town just a year ago.

"Yakutat, Alaska--Home of the Hubbard Glacier," the keepsakes declare.

"It sure was exciting," Ogle said of the days when Yakutat and its galloping glacier were featured on national television, in magazines and in newspapers. "But I don't think anybody locally gets too concerned anymore."

Hardware store operator Jake Jacobson shares her view.

"The Hubbard? No one talks about it much," Jacobson said. "I think it's sort of a 'Whatever will happen will happen' attitude."

Rapid Advance

The glacier astounded scientists last year when its normal inches-per-day pace went wild. The face of the glacier advanced hundreds of feet in a few weeks, damming the mouth of Russell Fiord about 30 miles north of Yakutat. Backed-up water threatened to overflow its banks and flood the land around Yakutat, including its primary source of income, the fisheries-rich Situk River.

Marine mammal rescuers, accompanied by a horde of reporters and cameramen, descended on the town in a futile bid to save seals and porpoises trapped and dying behind the ice.

Water pressure broke the glacier dam four months after it formed, defusing the threat of a flood. The animals regained their route to the sea, and Yakutat quickly sank back into obscurity.

'Sure Was Funny'

Mention the Hubbard here these days and people are more likely to talk about last year's uproar than the possibility of a repeat performance.

In a place where glaciers grace the horizon at several points, outsiders are more exotic than ice, and people tick off the reporters they have met the way tourists keep a running tally of the wildlife they see.

"Last year, it was a panic up here," Jacobson said. "It was funny. It sure was funny."

But if residents do not worry much about what the glacier will do next, the question still consumes a handful of scientists and government officials.

Glaciologists have predicted that the fiord could be closed again within two years, with an overflow to follow in 12 to 14 months.

"The intensity, from my perspective, is every bit as much as it was in the past," said Bud Tomlinson, who is in charge of U.S. Forest Service activities in the area. "I see two years as not being too far away."

The Forest Service, which controls the fiord and the land it could flood, and the U.S. Park Service, which owns the glacier itself, have been busy coordinating a series of scientific projects designed to monitor the Hubbard's movement.

The 80-mile-long glacier flows from the Canadian mountains to tidewater in Alaska. As it nears the Pacific Ocean, it advances side-by-side with the Valerie glacier.

Surge by Second Glacier

It was the surge of the smaller Valerie last year that pushed the Hubbard across the mouth of Russell Fiord in June, 1986.

When the pressure of the backed-up water broke the ice dam that October, the cascade trimmed back the wall of ice.

But the Hubbard continues to advance at a slower pace.

Austin Post, who has been studying Alaska's tidewater glaciers for 25 years, said the ice could leave people guessing for a long time.

"We don't really know much about what that thing does," Post said during a stop in Yakutat. "It could go on this way for a decade."

And no one is sure whether a new dam would hold and cause an overflow of the fiord-turned-lake. Based on the current shape of the ice face, glaciologists believe that a new dam might be thicker than the old and more likely to plug the fiord for a long time.

That threatens Yakutat on several counts.

An economic study done for the city said the flooding of the Situk could cost local residents a third of their annual incomes.

The clear river that wiggles across the marshy Yakutat forelands is a prime spawning ground for pink, coho and king salmon.

Local Tlingit Indians depend on smoked Situk salmon for winter food, and it supplements the store-bought provisions of many non-Tlingits as well.

The town also gets an economic boost from thousands of out-of-state sport fishermen who find world-class angling along the Situk.

And the commercial fishermen who sail the Gulf of Alaska beyond the Situk's mouth depend on the river to provide much of their catch.

Situk fishing and local logging together contribute $2.2 million a year in a town where taxable incomes totaled just $4.6 million in 1982, said the economic study, done by Tom Meyer of the University of Alaska, Juneau.

A flood also could have troubling secondary effects.

The future of the timber industry hinges on forests beyond the Situk. If the current bridge is swept away and the flooded Situk turns into a five-mile-wide braid of channels--as some people predict--the Forest Service's logging plans could be washed out as well.

Archeological Sites

The Forest Service also is working with local Tlingits to record and protect several archeological sites that could be lost in the flood.

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