The Canary in the Coal Mine

Hanging portion of Northwestern Glacier

Summer vacation took my husband and myself to Alaska this August. We flew to Anchorage and explored the Kenai Peninsula before a small plane took us across the Cook Inlet to Silver Salmon Creek River Lodge. It was breathtaking and a photographer’s dream. (Those who follow me on Facebook got to see our daily photos posted.)

This was my third trip to Alaska. The first was about twenty years ago for an Episcopal church-wide meeting of Christian education council of which I was part of in September. My second trip was a family cruise from Vancouver to Seward in August 2012. We saw a lot along the way and got to experience whales, bears, and eagles as well as what glaciers look like up close and personal.

IMG_3708As we flew into Anchorage a few weeks ago (close to the same time of year as previous trips), from my window seat I snapped photos as we passed over glaciers and mountain peaks. Stunning. But as we spent a few days in the Anchorage area I felt a difference. I had nothing to prove my intuition of the change, but it was unavoidable: the temps were in the 70-80s and snow was missing from many peaks. Yes, there were pockets of snow on the highest peaks, and glaciers could be seen nestling between them carving valleys for the future, but it was not as much snow as I remembered.

One of the day hikes we took was to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park. Very accessible from the parking lot just off the road, it was a beautiful, warm, and sunny day. We walked along the wooded paths that eventually opened onto a huge stream bed of glacial water surging and finally climbed up and over rock outcroppings and bedrock. Still a few miles away, the glacier looked massive. But an interesting observation is easily made due to dated signs that begin at the parking lot and and continue at various places along the trail dated. The parking lot: 1917 – marks the location of Exit Glacier’s terminus 100 years ago; today it is about a mile from the glacier’s edge. Okay – a mile in 100 years. That’s what glaciers do – they recede, grow, expand, melt. But the difference here is as we walked along the space as the signs approached, the years grew shorter and quicker respectively.



Beyond the last sign, which marks the 2010 edge, is a chasm of open space showing how Exit Glacier has continued its retreat up the valley. The loss measured in the summer of 2016 was 252 feet, the biggest in any single summer on record. Over the year ending Oct. 1 after fall measurements were taken, the retreat was 293 feet, according to the National Park Service. I can only imagine what it will be at the end of 2019, since Alaska experienced temps in the 90s this summer in some locations that have an average temperature of 62 degrees.

As we descended back to the parking lot, I overheard a small group of adults pass us by. One man said, “I was here five years ago and I can’t believe how much it has changed and receded.” Over breakfast the next day at our B&B, we chatted with our host who has lived in the area for the past 30 years. His words to us:

Alaska is the canary in the coal mine. It is really sick, but no one is noticing except us natives. Our livelihood has been impacted. We haven’t had any rain this summer. We don’t get as much snow as we used to. There is no denying climate change. We are living in it here in Alaska.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the amount of water locked up in ice and snow is only about 1.7 percent of all water on Earth, but the majority of total freshwater on Earth, about 68.7 percent, is held in ice caps and glaciers. Let that set in. Without glaciers, where will the earth’s water come from?



It is hard to be hopeful in the face of climate crisis. The problem is on a scale difficult for us to understand. Actions needed to address the crisis require a radical change in way of life. What can one person do? Does the Church have anything unique to offer? Is there something in our life of community, worship, and prayer that suggests a different way through this time?


I am reminded of a book/curriculum written by Ragan and Emily Sutterfield, Church, Creation, and the Common Good: Guidance in an Age of Climate Crisis. They offer a process for faith groups to come together to DO something. Here’s how they go about it:

“This is a six-week course that seeks to engage the Church in the challenges climate change poses to our age.

ChurchCreationCommonGood_FinalCover_300CMYKThis class is broken into three main sections: Ecclesia, Ecology, and Economy. There are two sessions connected to each section. In the first section, Ecclesia, we focus on the resources and  traditions of the Church. We begin not by looking at what climate change is but by looking at what the Church is. Then we move from that understanding to an exploration of how the Church should engage with climate change.

In the next section, Ecology, we start to explore the Church’s relationship with home and place: where we live, who and what we live among, and so forth. Through a variety of exercises, we hope to reshape our view of the Church’s connection to the wider neighborhood and community in the face of climate change.

In the last section, Economy, we examine our personal and collective responsibilities as we care for our households and use the goods of our places in ways that enable us to care for the common good of all, now and in the future.

In each section, we will invite you to identify and work from the assets of your community (rather than the deficits) with a goal toward flourishing for all. Together we can imagine how the Church can provide bold and new ways to move forward, not only in addressing climate change but other modern issues as well. Through an exploration of Ecclesia, Ecology, and Economy, it is our hope that churches can draw on their traditions and practices to become the Communities for the Common Good that the world needs now.”

Not all of us can visit Alaska and see climate change up close and personal. But we can research our own habitats as well as habits. Earth’s future depends on it.

Creator God, you make all things
and weave them together in an intricate tapestry of life.
Teach us to respect the fragile balance of life and to care for all the gifts of your creation.
Guide by your wisdom those who have power and authority,
that, by the decisions they make, life may be cherished
and a good and fruitful Earth may continue to show your glory and sing your praises. (From the National Council of Churches Earth Day Sunday 2001 resource packet.)

Another resource is Epiphanies, a digital magazine produced by the Anglican Journal of Canada. Published August 12, 2019, Issue 1 focuses on crisis within creation. This first issue offers in-depth reporting on the theology of beeschurch greeningclimate change in the North and food security in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Lastly, each year, from September 1, the Global Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, to October 4, St Francis of Assisi Day, many Anglicans use the Season of Creation – also known as Creation Time – to pray and celebrate with creation, focus on the story of Earth, and commit to a ministry of healing Earth.

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