As much of Alaska’s landmass crosses the magical temperature threshold that turns ice and snow into water, it’s time to consider the state’s wealth a more essential resource for humans than oil or gas.
Clear as gin, brown as iced tea, or aquamarine tinged with glacial dust, Alaska’s freshwater supply is so plentiful the numbers are hard to fathom.
“With an annual runoff of 650 million acre-feet (plus 150 million acre-feet from Canada), Alaska has about one-third of the total…of the entire United States,” wrote Charles Hartman and Philip Johnson, editors of the 1978 Environmental Atlas of Alaska. One acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, the amount of water needed to cover 1 acre at a depth of 1 foot.
Those numbers include the flow of the country’s third-longest river — the soon-to-swelling Yukon Yukon, which alone drains a third of Alaska’s landmass.
The environmental atlas editors also pointed out that Alaska has 94 freshwater lakes with an area of 10 square miles or more.
Iliamna Lake attracts red torpedoes from sockeye salmon in the Kvichak River in southern Alaska. It is 988 feet deep, covers more than 1,000 square miles of the Alaska map, and is the 10th largest lake in America.
Lake Becharof – which I had to look up despite almost bisecting the Alaskan Peninsula – is the 14th largest lake in America, second only to Lake Champlain, which I didn’t didn’t have to look up, because I grew up in New York.
Apologies to Minnesota, but Alaskan license plates could say “Land of 3 Million Lakes”. A large majority of these dark water pools have no name.
Granted, most Alaskan lakes aren’t great for swimming; swamps surround them and mosquitoes reign over them. But billions of songbirds are now on their way to feast, where few dare to venture in summer.
[Scientists are analyzing data from Denali’s Muldrow Glacier surge, which might unravel answers about the world’s glaciers]
Alaska has more water stored in glaciers than anywhere outside of Greenland and Antarctica. If you could airlift the thousands of glaciers from Alaska and drop them atop Maine, that state would look a lot like Greenland – an ice cap surrounded by a thin ring of rock.
Every summer, Alaskan glaciers raise the level of the world’s oceans with staggering amounts of meltwater, released after hundreds and thousands of years as blue ice. This liquid is one of Alaska’s underrated resources.
“Alaska has a tremendous water harvest,” Hartman and Johnson concluded in their report 44 years ago. “Essentially none are in use at the moment.”
An entrepreneur once tried to remedy this. During his second term as governor of Alaska in the 1990s, Wally Hickel proposed exporting some of Alaska’s fresh water to California. He envisioned an undersea pipeline that would carry water from the Stikine River in southeast Alaska or the Copper River near Cordova to California.
This pipeline would have been over 1,400 miles long, compared to the 800 miles of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Most thought the idea was crazy, but members of the US Congressional Technology Assessment Office met in Los Angeles in 1991 to see if the pipeline was feasible. Hickel attended this meeting.
Ultimately, the evaluators concluded that the Alaskan water pipeline was too expensive an option for California drought relief, but they did not forever rule out an Alaskan water pipeline. Especially if global warming – then noticed by scientists – caused more water crises in the West.
“Although there is no current or near-term demand for expensive Alaskan water, the possibility that such water may eventually be needed cannot be completely discounted,” they wrote.