tongass national forest

Starfish Wonders in Alaska

image od two orange starfish in clear waterStarfish are mysterious creatures. Some people and articles I have read say they should be called sea stars because of their shape and their lack of relationship to fish. I had never taken an interest in them until recently when I visited Alaska and kayaked on the Tatoosh Islands. The Tatoosh are located north of Ketchikan and are part of the Tongass National Forest,  U.S largest national forest.  While kayaking along the coast, I spotted an incredible array of these colorful creatures. Bright orange and pale lavender, spiny and fat, each one more different than the other, they nestled into the dark rocks along the shore.

The starfish on Alaska are extremely different from the giant ones I have seen before on Vieques, Puerto Rico. While their Caribbean relatives are larger and rounder, the ones in the north Pacific cold waters are smaller in size. After kayaking around the Tatoosh, I began my research on these particular sea habitants. Starfish are echinoderms or marine invertebrates with a five-radial symmetry that radiates from a central disc, hence their resemblance to a star. They move by using small water-filled sacs that protrude from their body. This hydraulic vascular system, aside from helping them move, aids them with feeding. Speaking of which, they have two stomachs: one for engulfing their prey and the other one for digestion!  They have a microscopic eye at the end of each arm which helps them move and distinguish between light and dark. While they have a complex nervous system, they lack a centralized brain. I was also very surprised to learn that they are able to regenerate lost arms and that they can travel considerable distances and migrate to breed and search for food.

Starfish have been around five hundred million years and there are around 1,800 species. This region of the North Pacific is among three areas of the world that yields the greatest variety of these echinoderms. Starfish are vital to marine ecosystems because they are calcifiers. Marine calcifiers play important roles in the food chains of nearly all oceanic ecosystems, help regulate ocean chemistry, and are an important source of biodiversity and productivity.

In order to celebrate my new found love for these unique and mysterious creatures, I acquired during my trip a beautiful ring with a silver starfish adhered to a blue stone resembling the ocean.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Glaciers and Climate Change

“Are glaciers melting at alarming rates?” “Is climate change really happening?” I have been asked these questions by people and students outside the environmental field. Changes in glaciers seem to be the gold standard for measuring climate change. However, living in the Caribbean, to me glaciers seem like a distant world.

image of rock with the words "Ice Limit" and the date "1916" carved into itA recent vacation to Alaska on a cruise ship provided me some insight on climate change and its consequences. While in Juneau I visited Mendenhall Glacier and could notice the retreating of this glacier upon my hike in the adjoining rain forest. An old building deep inside the forest revealed the former visitor’s center more than 10 miles from the glacier’s current location as well as a stone marking from 1916 of the ice limit.

Managed by the U.S. Forest Service and part of the Tongass National Forest (the nation’s largest forest), Mendenhall, which is 12 miles long, has been rapidly retreating since 1750. From 1951–1958, the glacier, which flows into suburban Juneau, has retreated 1,900 feet (580 m). The glacier has also receded 1.75 miles (2.82 km) since 1958, when Mendenhall Lake was created. In 2004 the glacier retreated 600 feet and in 2007 another 500 ft..

Glaciers form in areas with large amounts of rain and extremely low temperatures. When snow accumulates, it compacts underlying snow layers from previous years into solid ice. Glaciers cover 10% of our world’s total area. This is the same amount of land used worldwide for agriculture. Glacier and polar ice store more water than all the world’s lakes, rivers and the atmosphere combined. When they melt, sea level rises thus consequences for coastal communities and islands are serious. Rising sea levels inundate wetlands and other low-lying lands In Juneau, I could not help noticing that the Gastineau Channel turns into a wetland at some point during the day. There was a low tide early in the morning. Our forest interpreter told us it is becoming increasingly unavigable as there has been a marked increase in silt build up. Some research into this showed that it has been argued that this a consequence of melting and retreating of Mendenhall Glacier. If current trends continue, it is possible the channel may be entirely blocked and filled with dry land.

Yes indeed, climate change is happening and it is tangible. EPA is working on many programs geared to reduce the harmful effects on human health and the environment of green house gases. While most are voluntary, states and industries are actively engaged. I invite you to take a closer look at your daily activities and try to cut down on your carbon footprint.

About the author: Brenda Reyes Tomassini joined EPA in 2002. She is a public affairs specialist in the San Juan, Puerto Rico office and also handles community relations for the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.