Half of Denali National Park Closes Early Due to Landslides

Image: Paxson Woelber via Wikimedia Commons

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The National Park Service has closed down a large swathe of Alaska’s Denali National Park after excessive permafrost thawing caused landslide activity near the park’s only access road. The access road is now closed, blocking entry to about half of the park. Park officials say that although there have been landslides in the past, this unprecedented thawing directly results from climate change and worry that they don’t have the resources to protect the road from the escalating threat.

Why This Matters: The world’s highest latitudes are melting at two to three times the rate of the rest of the globe, and melting permafrost is causing significant problems.

  • When permafrost thaws, it releases methane gas into the atmosphere, 86 times more effective at trapping heat than CO2.
  • In the Russian Arctic, trapped, underground methane released by melting permafrost has caused explosions, creating massive craters in the ground.
  • Indigenous communities that rely on underground permafrost cellars to store and preserve food are facing increased food insecurity.

In the early 2000s, half of Denali National Park sat on top of permafrost, but a study by the University of Alaska Fairbanks found that by 2050, that permafrost will have declined by 94% due to climate change. If the U.S. and the world don’t move to protect the Arctic, melting permafrost will continue to damage the atmosphere, infrastructure, and people.

Cold as Ice, Hotter than a Tamale

Denali National Park covers 6 million acres and was the first national park created to protect wildlife; it’s home to 39 species of mammals, 169 birds, and one amphibian. It also contains Denali Mountain, North America’s highest mountain peak at 20,310 feet. Finally, it hosts one of only 150 known “mobile slopes,” continuous landslides that can shift the ground over time. The Pretty Rocks Landslide has been moving slowly for decades, but officials say its rate of movement is rapidly accelerating because of rising temperatures.

  • In 2018, the slope moved half an inch per day; now, following late summer rains, the slope is moving at about 12 inches per day. The park’s only access road has moved 34 feet since late March.

The accelerating movement now threatens the park’s infrastructure and the lives of tourists and park workers. “Changing climate is driving frozen ground to thaw, resulting in unpredictable and increasing landslide movement rates at Pretty Rocks that are unprecedented in the history of the park road,” said Don Striker, the park’s Superintendent. “We cannot safely keep up with the accelerating rate of landslide movement caused by permafrost thaw currently occurring in association with the Pretty Rocks Landslide.”

Alaska isn’t the only place where erratic rains have led to landslides. In Colorado, increasing wildfires followed by heavy rains caused a landslide that stranded 100 cars along Interstate 70. Experts say that climate change could make major landslide events occur every ten years. 

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