A Frozen River of Poo Is Sliding Down Denali

Visitors to beautiful Denali have left roughly 66 tons of frozen waste behind. Denali National Park and Preserve/Wikimedia Commons

For decades, tourists, adventure athletes, and nature-lovers have flocked to Alaska's Denali National Park to explore North America's highest peak. And where human traffic tends to accumulate, so too accumulates human waste.

Luckily, the vast Denali wilderness offers something of a solution to this problem, albeit a short-sighted one: frozen-over latrines in the form of glacial runoff. All that tourist poo gets conveniently entombed in ice and slowly carried off the mountain as its glaciers slide ever-so-gradually toward their final destination, the sea.

But alas, a day of reckoning may soon be upon us. That frozen river will eventually reach the coast, unleashing this well-preserved flow of feces into the Alaskan wilderness. And global warming isn't helping.

As the Arctic thaws at an alarming rate, Alaska's icy rivers are becoming liquified, which means they're moving faster and will discharge their forbidden cargo sooner than expected. In fact, at least 66 metric tons of human waste is estimated to be locked up within Kahiltna Glacier alone, and the oldest layers of poop trapped there might start to get exposed later this year, reports USA Today.

"We have lost more glacier cover in the Alaskan national parks than there is area in the whole state of Rhode Island," said Michael Loso, a National Park Service glaciologist who’s been studying the problem of climber excrement on the mountain for close to a decade. "One of the consequences of warming temperatures is that the surface of the glacier is melting more quickly."

Loso has performed experiments that show how buried feces inevitably resurface downstream on the surface of a glacier, and the stinky repercussions are unpleasant. There could also be real health hazards, as the parasite-laden melted sewage becomes biologically active.

"The waste will emerge at the surface not very different from when it was buried. It will be smushed and have been frozen and be really wet. It will be biologically active, so the E. coli that was in the waste when it was buried will be alive and well. We expect it to still smell bad and look bad," explained Loso.

New regulations are being instituted to require hikers to clean up and carry out their own waste, but there's little that can be done about the decades of muck that's already well on its way.

It's a pungent reminder that we can never truly escape our own waste, even when its deposited in places as vast as the Alaskan wilderness, or the ocean (e.g., plastic pollution), or Earth's atmosphere (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions). We've got to deal with our future problems today.

Unfortunately, we'll have to do it while also dealing with the centuries of environmental neglect from our past.