NOSB paper

This paper was written as part of the 2005 Alaska Ocean Sciences Bowl high school competition. The conclusions in this report are solely those of the student authors.

The Effects of Sedimentation on Skilak Lake Due to Glacial Melting


Keegan Birchfield
Sheila Oelrich
Kelly King
Heather Sinclair
Allie Schoessler


Team Ice Worms
Soldotna High School
425 W. Marydale Ave.
Soldotna, AK 99669

Soldotna Ice Worms team photo

Table of Contents

  1. Abstract
  2. The Kenai Peninsula
    1. Skilak Lake
  3. Global Warming
    1. Sources of Global Warming
    2. Consequences of Global Warming
    3. Global Glacial Melting
    4. Local Glacial Melting
  4. Effects on Salmon Population
    1. Effects on Alaska's Economy
  5. Solutions
  6. Figures
  7. Bibliography


No place on earth is untouched by the effects of global warming. However, the Arctic and Alaska in particular are hit hardest. As the northernmost state and part of the arctic region, Alaska best exhibits the detrimental consequences of global warming. Global warming poses a threat to the state's environment as well as economy. Environmentally, the rising temperatures cause wildfires, thawing permafrost, thinning sea ice, glacial melting, and increased spruce bark beetle infestation.

Our main focus is to uncover the cause and effects of glacial melting, specifically Skilak Glacier, in Alaska. The Skilak Glacier flows into Skilak Lake, where many juvenile salmon feed. The main food source of these fry is phytoplankton, and over-sedimentation jeopardizes their energy source by blocking sunlight.

We propose four solutions to this problem; two of which must be globally implemented, and two on a local level. On a broad scale, we plan to educate the public about global warming, and convince political powers to agree to the Kyoto Protocol. Locally, we suggest the installation of still ponds and/or silt fences in Skilak Lake and the streams that feed it. These proposals must be applied correctly for them to be successful.

Kenai Peninsula

The Kenai Peninsula Borough was founded in 1964. Spanning over 16,000 square miles, the Kenai Peninsula is the size of New Jersey and Massachusetts combined (Kenai Peninsula Borough, 2004). The population on the peninsula is 47,000 (Peninsula Wide Statistics and Data).Located in south central Alaska, it is encompassed by several hundred miles of shoreline, with Prince William Sound to the east and Cook Inlet to the west.

Major industries include offshore oil engineering and refinery, tourism, and commercial fishing and processing. Being the largest fishing industry, the salmon fishery has the greatest impact on the Kenai Peninsula's economy (Brown et al, 2004). In 2002, the total number of commercial fishing licenses issued numbered about 16,641 (Summary of Permit and Harvest Statistics, 2003). The well being of the marine environment is crucial to the Kenai Peninsula's economy.

Most sport fishing on the peninsula takes place on the Russian and Kenai Rivers and in the Cook Inlet. The Kenai River flows through the peninsula for 82 miles. It runs 17 miles from Kenai Lake, through Skilak Lake, and fifty more miles to its outlet in the Cook Inlet (Kenai River Facts, 2003).

Skilak Lake lies in the middle of the Kenai River, separating the Upper Kenai River from the Lower Kenai. It is one of the largest glacial lakes in the Kenai River system, second only to Kenai Lake. It has a surface area of roughly 100 km2 and an average depth of 73 m, although its maximum depth is 160 m (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003). Many salmon species spawn here, and leave their eggs to hatch. This developmental time during the salmon life cycle is vital. The juvenile salmon, or fry, live in Skilak Lake for the first part of their lives until they are strong enough to begin swimming down river to the sea (UW Salmon Emergence/Freshwater Rearing).

Skilak Lake

There are many species of fish living in Skilak Lake. The salmonids include Chinook salmon, Coho salmon, pink salmon, and sockeye salmon. Other fish include Whitefish, Lake Trout, Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden, Sticklebacks, and Lampreys.

There are two dominant species of copepod zooplankton residing in the lake. Cyclops columbianus, the most common, composed 53% to 88% of the average copepod biomass from 1986 to 2002. The copepod biomass has continued to decrease since its peak in 1993, and is currently about 450 mg m-2 (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

The other major plankton is Diaptomus pribilofensis. They are usually a source of food for fish only when C. columbianus does not have a sufficient population. Although the biomass of both C. columbianus and general copepods has decreased significantly over recent years, Diaptomus has maintained a relatively stable biomass (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

Combined with Kenai Lake, Skilak Lake is the most important sockeye salmon nursery in the Kenai River system. Skilak Lake contributes 90% of the sockeye fry produced by both lakes, and turns out the most salmon of any nursery in the upper Cook Inlet. The annual fish return to the Kenai River in recent years averages 600,000 with the increased return due to larger salmon runs, fishery closures due to oil spills, and changing management objectives (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

Skilak Glacier feeds into eastern Skilak Lake and is the major source of turbidity in the lake. This turbidity has recently increased with glacial melting, causing a decrease in the euphotic zone depth. These trends are consistent with rising air temperatures due to global warming because of increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gasses (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

Global Warming

The effects of global warming are becoming more evident each year. Many countries are noticing environmental changes that effect all other aspects of their lives, and there are few governments that are not beginning to consider solutions to the problem. There are many theories regarding the cause of global warming, several of which have been rejected by our country's government due to infeasibility.

There are many apparent effects of global warming on the earth, but a few are becoming increasingly evident to researchers. The top five contributors to global warming are energy use and production (57%), chlorofluorocarbons (17%), agricultural practices (14%), changes in land use (9%), and other industrial activities (3%) (Frommers Alaska). The idea of global warming involves a theory called the "greenhouse effect". In essence, the earth's atmosphere acts like a greenhouse, allowing heat radiation in but trapping it when reflected. The greenhouse effect involves the increase in greenhouse gases as well as the loss of the current existing buffer called the ozone layer. Greenhouse gases are large molecules (often carbon based) that rise into the atmosphere and become part of it. This increased molecular content in the atmosphere creates a blanket that traps heat against Earth's surface. Some heat is reflected back to space, some is absorbed, and some is trapped by the atmosphere and clouds. The ozone layer consists of O3 molecules. These are produced by extreme radiation in the upper atmosphere. It fuses an O2 molecule with lone oxygen molecules. These O3 molecules help protect us from extra radiation produced by the sun (Impacts of a Warming Arctic, Cambridge University).

Sources of Global Warming

Of all the theories concerning the major source of global warming, the most widely accepted is that of carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. The theory states that the recent increase in temperature around the world is directly related to carbon dioxide levels in the earth's atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is listed as one of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming. It is a byproduct of combustion reactions, which are the result of hydrocarbon's reaction with oxygen when stimulated by a catalyst. When the hydrocarbon burns in the exothermic reaction, it releases a large amount of energy and becomes inert. Its remaining products are CO2 and H2O.

Most hydrocarbons are produced by organic means. Organic matter is heated and altered in the Earth's crust and forms products such as crude oil and natural gas. Hydrocarbons are also produced directly by organisms. A far less common but apparent producer of hydrocarbons is when electrons are added to primordial carbon deep within the earth's crust (University of Florida, Science Dep.). Hydrocarbons are used in tremendous proportions today. They can be found burning everyday in millions of homes in the form of propane. Hydrocarbon's most common use in people's lives is car fuel. An estimated 539 million cars are on streets around the world. On average, each car produces an estimated 2000 kg of carbon dioxide every year ( That would put the estimated total amount of CO2 produced per year in the trillions of kilograms from cars alone. That doesn't include factories, power plants, etc. Even a home computer, operating 4 hours a week produces 45 kg a year (based on power required to operate a computer and fuel required to provide power) (

Other sources of greenhouse gases include volcanic activity, methane from various sources, and wildfires. Although some of these sources are uncontrollable by man, they should be mentioned as potential additives to the effect of global warming. After each volcanic eruption, tons of ash containing factorable particles is thrown in to the air. One theory behind methane production is that it originates from organic material. This theory is known as the "subduction-accretion complex". Just like oil and natural gas, the dead bodies of organisms and organic material are deposited into the ocean via rivers. When it settles on the ocean floor it is incorporated into the upper layer of crust. During continental movements, the oceanic crust slides under the continental one and the organic material is buried. Once it has reached a high enough temperature (150°C), it changes into methane and other various hydrocarbons. When released, the methane bubbles to the surface and makes its way into the atmosphere (Nature Vol. 419, 2002). Another source of methane is humans. Landfills and sewers produce huge amounts of methane every year. Despite the fact that methane-produced greenhouse gases are small scale in comparison to CO2, they are much easier to control (March 2004 ed. Scientific American). Wildfires not only destroy one of our great CO2 consumers, but also release more CO2 by burning large quantities of wood. The wildfires have an exponential effect as well. The more they burn, the warmer and drier it gets, and so the rate of fires increases again (Nature Vol. 425, 2003).

Besides adding chemicals and harmful molecules to the air, we are also destroying natural sources for CO2 reduction. Wildfires aren't the only thing destroying the world's forests; deforestation is another example of the destruction of one of Earth's great CO2 consumers. One acre of forest consumes approximately 19,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, and there are 640 acres per square mile, so there is about 12,160,000 pounds consumed per square mile. Processing follows the clearing and removal of wood. In order to process wood, it must go through factories that produce even more carbon dioxide. Some wood is used simply as firewood, adding more CO2 to our environment (

Ozone depletion is ranked second as a contributor to global warming. As previously stated, the ozone layer exists as a buffer between the earth and solar radiation from the sun. There are several manmade products that can break down the ozone. Some of the worst are known as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons). At an atmospheric pressure of one, like that of our environment, these products are non-toxic and relatively harmless, but once they reach the upper atmosphere they can have dire consequences. Ironically, the ozone is just the opposite; it's quite poisonous at our atmospheric level. When the CFCs reach the upper atmosphere, they are broken up into their base elements, which are chlorine, fluorine, and carbon. The chlorine atoms are used to break up the O 3 molecules. This destruction is a direct problem for people because the risk of skin cancer is increased in places with more sun exposure. The increased radiation also means extra heat getting to the earth's surface and being absorbed, trapped, or reflected. Thus, the long-term effect for the human population becomes more global warming (March 2004 ed. Scientific American).

Consequences of Global Warming

Some of the most obvious signs of global warming are being seen in the arctic regions of our planet. Studies show that areas like Alaska are showing as much as a two to three degree Celsius temperature increase over the last thirty years, over twice the rate of the rest of the world. This rapid increase of arctic temperatures can produce effects such as thinning sea ice, receding glaciers, rising sea level, thawing permafrost, higher wildfire rates, doubled spruce bark beetle life cycles, forests encroaching on tundra, and spread of diseases due to warmer climates are all effects on the arctic regions of the Earth (Impacts of a Warming Arctic, Cambridge University).

One consequence of global warming for the arctic and its inhabitants is thawing permafrost. Northern villages and towns of Russia have built their homes and towns on this permafrost, but when it thaws the foundation of the building becomes soft and ultimately collapses (Nature Vol. 425, 2003). As stated before, wildfires are increasing with drier warmer climates. Both an increase of dead trees from spruce bark beetles and a warming climate contribute to this. Previously, the warm summer was only long enough to support one life cycle of the beetles, but now that warming has extended the summer season, two full life cycles occur (Nature Vol. 425, 2003). In the more northern regions where tundra dominates the landscape, there are increased sightings of trees and small shrubs. Local species such as caribou rely on the tundra for feeding grounds, migration routes, and basic habitat (Impacts of a Warming Arctic, Cambridge University).

The final, less apparent problem is the wider spread of diseases such as the West Nile Virus. The main carrier of the West Nile Virus, Culex tarsalis, has a habitat limited by weather extremes like cold. Reports of bird carcasses containing the virus in northern regions such as Canada due to warmer climates have increased (Impacts of a Warming Arctic, Cambridge University).

The consequences that Alaska now faces are the result of our own negligence, as well as the rest of the world. The numerous effects of global warming are wreaking havoc in Alaska more than anywhere else in the world (National Geography, September 2004). The increased two to three degree Celsius temperature rise in Alaska has caused all of these effects in a more exaggerated manner. We must find some solutions for these problems before future generations suffer from our mistakes.

Global Glacial Melting

Glacial melting has become a prominent risk not only in Alaska, but internationally as well. Scientists all over are witnessing the ever progressing melting and shrinking of glaciers. Some of the major problems caused by glacial melting are the rise of rising sea levels and flooding. Due to the rapid melting of glaciers, lakes are becoming swollen, which poses a huge risk of devastating floods.

Extensive research has been performed in several areas world wide, but a large amount of the focus in the Himalayan Mountains. This research was sparked by natural disasters in Russia and Nepal, most likely caused by the effects of glacial melting. The Maili Glacier in the Caucasus Mountain practically collapsed, releasing three million tons of ice and mud onto a Russian village (Los Angeles Times2002). Now, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and various organizations are working to install warning systems that alert locals about glacial flooding (National Geographic 2002). However, many scientists worry that this is not enough. When the glacial lakes burst, they release massive amounts of water within seconds that cannot be avoided (National Geographic2002).

Local Glacial Melting

Here in Alaska, we are beginning to see signs of glacial melting all over the state. Alaska's glaciers account for thirteen percent of all the glaciers worldwide. However, they contribute about one half of the water going into the oceans, which raises the overall seal level considerably (Science 2000). An estimated 23 cubic miles of water came from Buckskin Glacier and Glacier National Park alone. Columbia, Skilak, and Exit Glaciers have shown measurable signs of retreat (see figures #1 and #2). Science Magazine recorded Columbia Glacier showing large recessions over the past twenty years. Aerial photos of Skilak and markers posted at Exit Glacier show correlating data (Science Vol. 297, July 19, 2002).

Over the past several years, the retreat of Skilak Glacier has been observed and recorded. Its recession is a result of melting and calving, and has resulted in the formation of a small lake at the base of the glacier. This lake shows the recession of Skilak Glacier over the past fifty years (See figure #1). This lake then flows down into the main lake via a small channel of water. Most of the released silt and other sediment are carried down to the main lake and in turn into the Kenai River and Cook Inlet.

With the excessive melting of Skilak Glacier, more glacial silt is being deposited into the lake. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been collecting information on the turbidity in the surface water of Skilak Lake since the mid 1980's. Between the years of 1986 and 1992, the turbidity of the lake averaged about 4.6 NTU. NTUs are a measurement known as Nephelometric Turbidity Units. They are the measure of turbidity in the water. Within the course of five years (1992 to 1997), the turbidity rose to 11.6 NTU. However, within the next three years the turbidity dropped down to 7.4 NTU, which is still about sixty percent higher than it was from 1986 to 1992 (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

Effects on the Salmon Population

The increase of glacial runoff in Skilak Lake could conceivably increase silt loading and turbidity, which causes reduced photosynthetic capability in the euphotic zone because of the lack of light penetration. This is the basis of the salmon decreases over the years (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

The decrease in the euphotic zone depth can have substantial impact on the Diel Vertical Migration (DVM) of the zooplankton in the lake. DVM is a survival mechanism employed by plankton in both marine and freshwater environments. It involves the migration of plankton to the surface at night to feed and back to deeper water during the day to avoid predators (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

The C. columbianus and Diaptomus are the major food source for sockeye salmon fry in Skilak Lake. These zooplankton feed on phytoplankton, which are showing trends (297, July 19, 2002).

Over the past several years, the retreat of Skilak Glacier has been observed and recorded. Its recession is a result of melting and calving, and has resulted in the formation of a small lake at the base of the glacier. This lake shows the recession of Skilak Glacier over the past fifty years (See figure #1). This lake then flows down into the main lake via a small channel of water. Most of the released silt and other sediment are carried down to the main lake and in turn into the Kenai River and Cook Inlet.

With the excessive melting of Skilak Glacier, more glacial silt is being deposited into the lake. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been collecting information on the turbidity in the surface water of Skilak Lake since the mid 1980's. Between the years of 1986 and 1992, the turbidity of the lake averaged about 4.6 NTU. NTUs are a measurement known as Nephelometric Turbidity Units. They are the measure of turbidity in the water. Within the course of five years (1992 to 1997), the turbidity rose to 11.6 NTU. However, within the next three years the turbidity dropped down to 7.4 NTU, which is still about sixty percent higher than it was from 1986 to 1992 (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

Effects on Alaska's Economy

Alaska salmon are known as one of the best quality salmon sources in the world. In fact, on September 5, 2000, Alaska's statewide commercial salmon fisheries became the only salmon fishery in the world to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council as well managed and sustainable due to their rigorous environmental standards. Alaska's prestigious salmon stock has helped make seafood Alaska's largest export and contributed $2.5 billion to the U.S. balance of trade. Alaska accounted for 54% of the nation's commercial seafood harvest by weight in 2002, making it the largest U.S. fishery resource, with 12 of the nation's top 93 ports (two of them being in the nation's top five) (Blatchford, April 2004). Alaska's seafood industry creates one-fifth of all Alaskan jobs, and due to the charter and recreational fishery, it is a significant contributor to the state's economy. In addition, many of Alaska's coastal and interior river community residents also depend on the subsistence salmon fishery, making the salmon stock a necessity for not only the economic basis of many families, but the food that sustains them (National Marine Fisheries Service, 2001).

The Kenai River is one of the most significant contributors to Alaska's salmon fishery. Being the largest producer of sockeye salmon in the Cook Inlet drainage and characteristic of producing the largest strain of Chinook salmon, the Kenai River fish stocks provide 13% of the total sport fishing effort in Alaska, making the Kenai River the number one sport fishing system in the state of Alaska (Liepitz and Muhlberg, 1993).

Most of the Kenai River salmon stock is dependent on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge (KNWR). "Much of the king salmon run depends on refuge tributaries. Essentially, all of the sockeyes and Cohoes spawn here or migrate through refuge waters," said Robin West (Peninsula Clarion, 2001).

A major part of the KNWR is Skilak Lake. Together Skilak and Kenai Lakes produce most of the sockeye salmon in the upper Cook Inlet, as they are the major nursery areas for this particular salmon. Skilak Lake alone contributes more than 90% of the total sockeye fry production (Bue, Carlson, Edmundson, Schmidt, Tarbox, Willette, 2003).

The manager of the KNWR, Robin West stated, "It really boils down to the fish. We can talk about a lot of other things that are important to the economy, but having a good sustainable fishery is where most of this ($170 million a year contributions from KNWR to Kenai Peninsula economy) is coming from."

Skilak Glacier's effects on the juvenile salmon also affect the entire ecosystem; many other fish species and other wildlife and plant species are feeling the pressure. All areas of the Kenai River and its tributaries are linked to form an ecosystem, which supports 34 fish species as well as numerous other forms of wildlife (Cramer, 1999). In this way a depleted population of sockeye fry would not only affect the direct community (Kenai Peninsula), but would also alter the state salmon stock, and in turn affects our seafood export, which contributes to the national export profit. Many other communities in Alaska, states in the U.S., and countries in the world rely on the production of our salmon, so it is very important for us to be concerned about the issue at hand; it could have dire consequences for not only our direct community, or state, but the nation and even the world.


Solutions for the current threat to the increase in silt and other sediment deposits into the Skilak Lake and subsequent waterways must be found. Two ideas we have proposed to limit the inflow of sediment into the lake via the small waterway leading down from the glacier are: sediment fences, used for drain-off filtration, and still pools often used for the same purposes. On a broader scale, we must also address solutions for the current problem of global warming. Several proposed ideas are: the joining of the Kyoto agreement by the United States and public awareness of causes of global warming (especially in our local regions of Alaska).

Silt fences are often used on smaller operations of silt removal for storm drainage off hillsides. Silt fences consist of steel bars holding a fence erect across the waters path. The fence itself is made of a material called Geo-textile. The fabric is a heavy-duty strainer in a sense. It's backed by woven wire mesh and steel wire gauge. This provides support for the material. In front of the fence (uphill side) is a "trench" or anchorage for the fabric that is filled with tampered natural soil to ensure it's not eroded away (see figures #3 and #4) ( Although the designers of the fence say that it is not meant for direct flow, we believe that the fence can be reinforced and modified to fit our requirements. The waterway leading down from the glacial lake to Skilak Lake is relatively shallow and spread out (Global Explorer). This shallower and slower moving water would be well suited for our purposes. The fence would have to be regularly cleaned (to prevent water build-up behind the fence). Money and supplies would be cheap in the shadow of losing one of our great incomes of the area.

Still ponds are also used in silt and sediment removal. The pond is designed to slow the water to a rate slow enough for the sediment to have time to settle. It is simply a deep hole that can be lined with a waterproof sheet (see figure #5). When the silt and sediment settle, it is removed periodically to avoid build up. Silt ponds are large and somewhat slower than the fences, but are often used on larger bodies of water. They are more expensive and effect the environment in greater ways, but don't require the continuous cleaning that the silt traps need.

A possibility for future projects would be a combination of the two. Still ponds that drain water through silt fences could be erected. This would provide a high removal of silt, but this could be too high and affect the environment in adverse ways. To compensate for the high levels of filtration, fewer could be erected and prove more cost efficient. The purpose of the silt devices is not for total removal of it but simply a reduction of flow. The river flowing into Skilak Lake splits into many smaller waterways that could be individually controlled using several small-scale devices such as the fences or settling ponds. Using these smaller projects as well could save money.

On a global perspective there are few feasible solutions that can lessen the problem of global warming, but there are several helpful methods of improving the climate changes. Not enough people care or realize the true effect that global warming can have on them and future generations. Ideas for helping in the fight against global warming at home could help influence the everyday people to do their part. A public awareness program could be installed and broadcast on T.V. such as local news stations and local radio stations.

Another proposed step towards solving global warming is signing on to the Kyoto Protocol agreement. It is out of the public's hands but the American voice can help influence the politician's ideas. The Kyoto Protocol is an alliance of nations that pledge money for research on solutions for global warming (Gunter Weller, A.D.N. September 19, 2004). This will help put money towards solutions from the American government and continue the research for it. All of our proposed products require considerable but reasonable sums of money. State and National Funding is essential to the success of these installations.


Figure 1.

Figure 1

Recession comparison from 1950–1996 #1

Figure 2.

Figure 2

Recession comparison from 1950-1996 #2 (Mark Laker, KNWR 2004

Figure 3.

Figure 3

Typical Silt Fence Instillation- Source: MPCA, 2000

Figure 4.

Figure 4

Typical Silt Fence Instillation #2

Figure 5.

Figure 5

Still Pond (USDA Forest Service, 2001)


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