Video of the Week: Icefall at Alaska’s Portage Glacier

On April 11, a trio of hikers witnessed a spectacular icefall at Portage Glacier in Alaska, which was caught on camera and shared widely on social media. The ice fell into the frozen Portage Lake, creating waves that rippled beneath the frozen surface, briefly threatening the safety of the onlookers.

Portage is a retreating glacier located on the narrow neck of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, where the legume-shaped extension meets the mainland. In January, GlacierHub posted “Glacier Hugging Is the New Tree Hugging” with a series of photos depicting glacier-huggers at Portage Glacier. The inherent instability of glaciers makes them dangerous for visiting up close, especially during the spring, as the hikers in the above footage experienced.

The Anchorage Daily News reported that Anchorage resident Jason Rouch Jr. — who was hiking at Portage Glacier on that morning and preparing to photograph the glacier — felt like “something intense was about to happen.” Rouch was there to photograph the glacier with a couple of friends on a socially-distant outdoor excursion.

“It just fell and it seemed like slow motion,” Rouch, 25, said in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News. His Facebook video of the calving event, which has been viewed more than 93,000 times and shared more than 4,000 times, included the following caption:

😱😱😱 I was blessed to experience this INCREDIBLE, RARE, and SCARY moment today. The weather was once again amazing here in Anchorage, so I decided to do another hike out to the Portage Glacier.

I wanted to get a photo fairly close but still in a safe spot so I walked over to land next to the glacier. Very shortly after I got to land, I heard the ice begin to crack, and each second it grew more intense. So I pulled out my phone and took this video! A giant piece of ice the size of a house weighing probably tens of thousands of pounds fell right in front of me!

I think this will be my last time on the ice for this season, since it’s all cracked up now. Usually I get a bit closer, but just yesterday, a great friend Cindy Carlton warned me that if the glacier calves, sometimes the ice chunks can fall under the ice and create a wave buckling the ice upwards. Thank you for your excellent advice! If you hadn’t warned me, I would’ve still been on the ice, and a lot closer.

“If people are going to go out there, they should use caution,” Rouch told the Anchorage Daily News. “I would say, 1. Keep your distance away from the glacier, and 2. I wouldn’t travel alone if you do go out there.”

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Video of the Week: Ice Fall at Chenega Glacier

In this week’s Video of the Week, Australian Geographic photographer and conservationist Chris Bray captures a spectacular ice fall at Alaska’s Chenega Glacier in the Fall of 2019. “Wait for the end, it all comes down!” said Bray in his Instagram caption. “It was so explosively powerful we could feel it in our chests!” In the slow motion video, startled seabirds can be seen evacuating their forage zone at the glacier’s face.

Chenega is a 12-mile (19-kilometer) long tidewater glacier in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. A study which looked at the terminus position of 50 Alaska tidewater glaciers from 1948-2012 found Chenega was the lone glacier to not advance or retreat significantly. It is not clear whether the glacier has begun to retreat in the eight years after the study was completed, but once retreat begins it’s hard to stop. “The retreat phase of a tidewater glacier can be triggered by changes in climate,” the study’s authors wrote. “Once retreat is initiated, the glacier’s behavior is only weakly influenced by climate and geometry becomes a primary driver of behavior.”

Regional contributions to sea level rise (Source: Michael Zemp/Nature)

An April 2019 study published in the journal Nature found that glacier melt is occurring more rapidly than previously thought and accounts for 25-30 percent of observed sea level rise since 1961, with Alaskan glaciers being the largest contributors. “Awesome to witness but sad to see more and more rock exposed every year at my favorite glacier as the face retreats more and more,” Bray said, adding the tag #globalwarming.

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Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is Now Causing Earthquakes

Thwaites Glacier is one of Antarctica’s largest contributors to sea level rise from Antarctica.  Its rate of loss has doubled in the past three decades, earning it the moniker “doomsday glacier.” Understanding why it’s retreating so quickly has been a challenge, but glaciologists have recently discovered that the glacier is now generating its own seismic activity when it calves (breaks off icebergs into the ocean), which could help in unlocking the physical keys to this process. The findings were published early this year in Geophysical Research Letters. 

Read the full story on Thwaites earthquakes by Grennan Milliken on GlacierHub here.

Icebergs near the terminus of Thwaites Glacier. If it were to collapse it could raise global sea levels by ten feet. (Source: NASA)

A Catastrophic Glacier Collapse and Mudflow in Salkantay, Peru

On 23 February 2020 an enormous, catastrophic debris flow tore down the Salkantay River in Santa Teresa, Peru. This event has killed at least four people, with a further 13 reported to be missing. Given the magnitude of the flow, this number is probably uncertain. The mudflow was captured in an extraordinary video posted to YouTube.

Read the full post on the Salkantay ice/rock avalanche by Dave Petley on GlacierHub here.

A Classification of Streamflow Patterns Across the Coastal Gulf of Alaska

From the plain language abstract: “Streams provide society with many benefits, but they are being dramatically altered by climate change and human development. The volume of flowing water and the timing of high and low flows are important to monitor because we depend on reliable streamflow for drinking water, hydroelectric power, and healthy fish populations. Organizations that manage water supplies need extensive information on streamflow to make decisions. Yet directly measuring flow is cost‐prohibitive in remote regions like the Gulf of Alaska, which drains freshwater from an area greater than 400,000 km2, roughly the size of California. To overcome these challenges, a series of previous studies developed a tool to predict historical river flows across the entire region. In this study, we used 33 years of those predictions to categorize different types of streams based on the amount, variability, and timing of streamflow throughout the year. We identified 13 unique streamflow patterns among 4,140 coastal streams, reflecting different contributions of rain, snow, and glacial ice. This new catalog of streamflow patterns will allow scientists to assess changes in streamflow over time and their impact to humans and other organisms that depend on freshwater.”

Read the full study published by the American Geophysical Union here.

Source: AGU/Sergeant et al

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Video of the Week: Fodar Map of Alaska’s Denali

This week, journey to Denali in Alaska, the glacier-covered peak that is the highest mountain in North America. Matt Nolan created a new high-resolution map using the software Fodar.

“This story has roots that go back nearly a decade. I’ve never had any desire to climb Denali, but I imagine my desire to map it is similar to what those climbers feel— it’s just there, daring me to test my skills against its challenges. While I’ve been an earth scientist for 25 years, my real passion has been engineering and using contraptions to allow me to make earth science measurements that no one else has made,” Nolan accounted in a blog post on the rationale for this project.

The project was made possible by Fairbanks Fodar, a service that makes maps anywhere in the world, particularly as they relate to assisting underfunded scientists and land managers on issues related to climate change or developmental pressures.

 

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Photo Friday: Juneau Icefield Expedition

Hands-on experience visiting glaciers is crucial for students pursuing a career in glaciology. The Juneau Icefield Research Program is one of the longest-running glacier research programs with a 70-year history of bringing young people to the glaciers of Alaska and British Columbia. In 1948, Maynard Miller, one of the climbers on America’s first Mt. Everest expedition in 1963, led a group of explorers on a first expedition to Juneau Icefield, which includes some 50 outlet glaciers. Ever since, the program has been leading young students from high school to the graduate level to Juneau Icefield, offering opportunities to conduct field research with faculty and explore various glacial landforms and features.

Students begin their traverse from Juneau, Alaska, making their way up the Coast Mountains of Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. During their expedition, students interact with the other members of the research group and faculty advisers to collect field data and analyze the data in camp sites, where various tools are provided to assist the analysis. They finish their expedition in the small town of Atlin, Canada, where they give presentations about their group research conducted on the icefield. 

Below are some pictures taken by students, staff, and faculty during their time on the Juneau Icefield.

For more information on the Juneau Icefield Research Program, visit juneauicefield.com.

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Northern Lights appeared above the grand junction of Gilkey and Vaughan-Lewis Glaciers (Source: Deirdre Collins).

 

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Gilkey Trench overlooked from on a nunatak located in the junction of Gilkey and Vaughan-Lewis Glaciers, both tributary glaciers of Juneau Icefield (Source: Deirdre Collins).

 

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A student from 2016 Juneau Icefield Research Program exploring a crevasse (Source: Lucas Foglia, Deirdre Collins).

 

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Arête overlooking the Gilkey Glacier (Source: Deirdre Collins).

 

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Sunset seen from Camp 17, located on a nunatak in Gilkey Glacier (Source: Deirdre Collins).

Photo Friday: Alaska Glaciers in Old Pictures

This week’s Photo Friday features a special treasure: the historic pictures of Alaska glaciers. The images were selected from the special collection of Alaskan glacier surveys led by William O. Field during International Geophysical Year (IGY), 1957-1958.

These photos include Alaska glaciers like Columbia Glacier, Worthington Glacier, Grand Pacific Glacier, Northland Glacier, Lawrence Glacier, Ripon Glacier, and Yale Glacier, which are only a small part of the enormous collection. These photos represent an attempt to systematically study glacier change in Alaska. The photos can be accessed via National Snow and Ice Data Center.

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Alaska Mountain Glaciers Raise Global Sea Level

Alaska’s impact on global sea level rise is becoming more pronounced. Its melting glaciers, particularly the minority mountain glaciers, will be a major driver of sea level change in the coming decades, according to a new study conducted by Chris Larsen, research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and his colleagues.

The glacier world in Alaska. Photo credit: Stephen Kennedy (via Flickr).
The glacier world in Alaska. Photo credit: Stephen Kennedy (via Flickr).

With over 100,000 glaciers, Alaska is home to half of the world’s glaciers. Every seven years, glacier loss from Alaska contributes a 1-foot thick layer of water covering the state of Alaska. Though mountain glaciers hold less than 1% of the total glacier volume on the Earth, the recession of mountain glaciers contribute to nearly 1/3 of current sea level rise.

Larsen and his team examined 116 glaciers across Alaska to estimate ice loss from melting and iceberg calving between 1994 to 2013. Iceberg calving, the unique process of ice chunks breaking off at the edge of a glacier, is underlined in the study because few existing observations or models value the impact of iceberg calving under climate change.

“We’ve long wondered what the contribution of iceberg calving could be across the entire state,” O’Neel, one of the researches, told the American Geophysical Union.  The Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound has retreated more than 12 miles mostly due to iceberg calving since 1980.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks collected airborne lidar altimetry data, highly specialized research aircrafts, as part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission since 2009. The mission aims to picture the Earth’s polar ice in unprecedented detail with innovative science instruments to better connect the polar regions with the global climate system.

NASA's Operation IceBridge Survey Flight Over Saunders Island and Wolstenholme Fjord. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (via Flickr).
NASA’s Operation IceBridge Survey Flight Over Saunders Island and Wolstenholme Fjord. Source: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (via Flickr).

The team also integrated the new data with information from the 1990s collected by the University scientists and Keith Echelmeyer, a pilot, mountaineer and pioneer glaciologist. They developed a more detailed characterization of the size and shape of every glacier in Alaska, in addition to the glaciers of southwest Yukon Territory and coastal northern British Columbia.

With the new data inventory, the research team has made some significant discoveries. Across the years from 1994 to 2013, Alaska’s tidewater glaciers contributed to only 6% of Alaska’s mass loss. Glaciers that end in the ocean, called tidewater glaciers, make minimal contribution to sea level rise, while glaciers ending on land are primary contributors to mountain glacier mass loss driven by climate change.

“This work has important implications for global sea level projections. With improved understanding of the processes responsible for Alaska glacier changes, models of the future response of these glaciers to climate can be improved,” Larsen told the American Geophysical Union. Despite the fact that the impact of the large-scale tidewater glacier losses in Alaska is negligible, Alaska will remain a major contributor to global sea level rise through its mountain glaciers.