It’s summertime in the Northern Hemisphere. And for those of us that are able, the summer months can mean time off from work and an opportunity to venture near or far on a vacation.
Glaciers lie on each of the world’s seven large landmasses, meaning, while they’re often located in relatively remote areas, one needn’t travel to the polar regions to observe the remnants of the last Ice Age—which makes them a popular vacation draw.
New Zealand has the Southern Alps. Glaciers are found in each of the seven Andean nations: Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. The mountains of the American West, as well as Alaska, host glaciers. And, of course, there are the alpine peaks of southern Europe and the iconic, albeit much more remote, mountains of the “Third Pole.”
A survey of photo sharing websites, such as Flickr, reveals the enduring allure of the world’s glaciers, particularly as climate change and the threat it poses to the longevity of the world’s cryosphere becomes more and more apparent.
And therein lies a paradox.
So-called last-chance tourism is driven by interest in visiting the landscapes that are vulnerable to rising temperatures and more frequent and more intense extreme weather events. Yet with greater interest in these places comes increasing threats to their sustainability, whether due to carbon-intensive airline travel or the consumer waste that results from a simple visit to the refreshment stand at a national park. A recent study even sought to quantify the amount of summer sea ice in the Arctic that melts with each metric ton of carbon emitted by an individual.
Individual consumer decisions won’t bring the world significantly closer to zero emissions as long as decisions about how energy is generated, what modes of transportation are available, and how consumer goods are produced—the largest sources of carbon pollution—remain largely in the realm of the public sector, that is society-wide.
Visiting glaciers can heighten one’s understanding of the massive forces bound up in Earth’s climate and geology, which, perhaps for many people, explains their seduction.
Here’s a view of some of the world’s popular glacier destinations through the eyes of recent visitors.
Heat Wave in Alaska Results in Record Temperatures, Wildfires, and Glacial Melt
From Yereth Rosen at Reuters: “Alaska’s heat wave is driving wildfires and melting glaciers, choking the state’s biggest cities with smoke and bloating rivers with meltwater. Melting glaciers and mountain snowfields are bloating rivers and streams across a large swath of south central Alaska, the [National Weather Service] said. The melt has brought water levels to flood stage at the Yentna River northwest of Anchorage on [June 30].”
Black Carbon Measured in the Northeastern Tibetan Plateau
From Science of the Total Environment: “Black carbon (BC), which consists of the strongest light-absorbing particles (LAP) in snow/ice, has been regarded as a potential factor accelerating the melting of glaciers and snow cover over the Third Pole. During the winter and summer of 2016, snow, ice and topsoil were sampled from the Laohugou basin located on the northeastern Tibetan Plateau. Concentrations of BC in Laohugou Glacier No. 12 (LG12) and snow cover in this basin.”
Contemporary Artwork at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Features Icelandic Artist Ragnar Kjartansson
From The Met: “As part of a new series of contemporary installations, The Met presents the world premiere of a major new work: Death Is Elsewhere (2019), a seven-channel video installation by the acclaimed Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Provocatively rethinking the possibilities for performance and video art, Kjartansson makes work in which he simultaneously evokes Romantic clichés while using irony, nihilism, and absurdity to undermine them.”
Just a short journey from Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, Mendenhall Glacier is the state’s most popular summer tourist destination, and arguably one of the most accessible glaciers in the world. Located in Tongass National Forest, Mendenhall is one of 38 glaciers that originate from the massive 1,500 square mile Juneau Icefield. From its origin to its terminus at Mendenhall Lake, the glacier stretches some 13.6 miles.
A strong tourism industry around Alaska’s glaciers provides the state with substantial economic benefits. It also gives visitors an opportunity to witness the effects of anthropogenic climate change.
Beyond the pristine beauty and temperate summertime weather in Alaska, so-called “last chance tourism” is a huge motivation for visitors, who wish to marvel at immense blocks of blue and white ice as well as Mendenhall’s famous ice caves before they melt.
Opened in 1962, the Forest Service Visitor Center at Mendenhall Glacier was the very first in the United States. “When this visitor center was built, there were 23,000 visitors per year, and now there’s over 700,000,” James King, a region director for the US Forest Service in Alaska, told the Juneau Empire.
Current facilities are designed for up to 485,000 visitors per year. The growth in tourists has caused congestion, long waits, and an experience that is less than ideal for visitors to the 6,000 acre Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area.
Robin Bouse, a tourist who visited Mendenhall last month, described the overcrowdedness. “The visitor center was crowded, so crowded that I couldn’t wait to get out of there,” she told GlacierHub. “I came from a cruise ship with about 4,000 passengers aboard and there were four similar ships in port that day.”
At its current capacity, the visitor center can only accommodate 4,000 people at a time.
In addition, tourist infrastructure will need to evolve to keep up with climate change. From satellite measurements taken by NASA’s Landsat 5 satellite in 1984 and Landsat 8 in 2013, Mendenhall retreated almost 4,000 feet, or three-quarters of a mile in under 20 years. Mendenhall Lake, which sits right at the terminus, has grown by roughly the same amount.
Another visitor to the glacier, Tim Denham, thought a visual representation of the glacier’s retreat over time would have been a valuable visual to add to the experience. “I think it would have been good to have big 4×4 posts with the years carved into them to show how rapidly it has receded,” he said.
By 2050, the glacier itself will no longer be visible from the huge windows that look out from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. ”The glacier ice was so beautiful and I felt fortunate to see it,” Bouse said. “It was easy to see that the glacier is retreating from the bare rocks surrounding it.”
From 2016 to 2018, six public meetings were held to develop a plan for revamping the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area and Visitor Center. The updated 50-year plan, published by the US Forest Service in February 2019 emphasizes major renovations over the next 10 years.
The Mendenhall Glacier Master Plan aims to create a sustainable recreation experience that can adjust to variations in glacier features. King from the US Forest Service estimated the project’s price tag at around $80 million.
As the glacier continues to retreat, the current viewpoints will become more strained, and visitors with a time limit––such as those who must return to their cruise ships––could subsequently be unable to attain the full experience.
“It was difficult to get up close to the glacier with the few hours I had to spend there, but the distant view was still spectacular enough,” said Bouse.
Denham similarly noticed the marked appearance of the glacier’s retreat, noting it was “barely visible across the lake. We hiked out a half mile on the trail but we were still too far away to see much.”
To accommodate increased glacial melt, the new plan proposes to switch from a land-based focus on hiking trails and viewing areas to a more water-based approach, complete with a commercial boat service to take people in small groups right to the terminus of Mendenhall Glacier.
There will also be a smaller mobile visitor center closer to the glacier itself. These new features will fulfill the frequently cited desire of tourists to truly be interactive with the glacier, allowing visitors to “touch the ice.”
Other parts of the proposed plan include more restrooms, a larger theater, and expanding parking availability. New walking trails will increase access to ecosystems newly exposed by the glacier’s retreat, including salmon, bears, and other wildlife. Finally, an additional visitor center will provide amenities such as food, restrooms, and directions, leaving the original building as an educational center and museum.
Taken together, these alterations could give the visitors a more pleasant and informative stay, showing them the glacier as it is now and as it had been. And it could awaken in them a sense of the urgency of climate change as a pressing issue, whether on vacation or back at home.
Mendenhall Glacier, near Alaska’s capital city of Juneau, is one of the most visited and oft-photographed glaciers in the United States. Kevin Lyons, an Alaska-based adventurer, uses his lens to offer a fresh angle on Mendenhall. Lyons is a self-described “photography enthusiast with a passion for travel and the outdoors.”
Dirt and cryoconite deposits on the ice surface inhibit the glacier’s ability to reflect solar radiation. Melt pools form on the ice surface, accelerating ablation by creating pores that allow water to penetrate the glacier.
Mendenhall’s retreat is well-documented, partly thanks to time lapse imagery provided by scientific cameras, like the one pictured below. The 2012 film, Chasing Ice, highlighted Mendenhall’s retreat to effect of global warming on the planet’s glaciers.
Mendenhall’s famous ice caves, pictured below, have collapsed since Lyons visited in 2014. A Frequently Asked Question on the U.S. Forest Service website addresses the rumor that ice caves exist at Mendenhall: “There have been several ice caves in past years, but the cave that appears in many recent internet photos has collapsed and disappeared. It was located along the west flank of the glacier but the ice has completely melted out of that area and no other caves are present.”
An indirect benefit for visitors and residents of Juneau is Lake Mendenhall, which did not exist prior to 1930. The lake formed due to excessive melt. The tongue of the glacier is expected to retreat to the point where it no longer terminates in the lake itself. According to Lyons, when the ice surface freezes just right “the hockey games out there are epic.”
Mount Veniaminof is a glacier-topped volcano located in southern Alaska. On September 3, 2018, the Alaska Volcano Observatory raised its Volcano Alert Level and Aviation Color Code at Veniaminiof from green, designating normal, to yellow, an “advisory,” due to seismic activity. The next day, the agency raised its alert level to orange, a “watch” level, because of low-level ash emissions observed on webcams. The color-code level has since been reduced to yellow.
Miller et al. (1998) provide a description of the mountain: “Mount Veniaminof is a broad central mountain, 35 [kilometers] wide at the base, truncated by a spectacular steep-walled summit caldera 8 by 11 km in diameter. The caldera is filled by an ice field that ranges in elevation from approximately 1750 to 2000 [meters]; ice obscures the south rim of the caldera and covers 220 square km of the south flank of the volcano. Alpine glaciers descend from the caldera through gaps on the west and north sides of the rim and other alpine glaciers occupy valleys on the north, east, and west-facing slopes of the mountain. In the western part of the caldera, an active intracaldera cone with a small summit crater has an elevation of 2156 m, approximately 330 m above the surrounding ice field. The rim of a larger but more subdued intracaldera cone protrudes just above the ice surface in the northern part of the caldera; based on limited exposure and physiographic features, it may have a summit crater as much as 2.5 km in diameter.”
From Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Antarctica’s ice is melting at an accelerating pace—six times the melt rate four decades ago—and that could have significant consequences for coastal communities around the world. The Antarctic shed 40 billion tons of ice each year between 1979 and 1989. But researchers say that the southern continent has been shedding 252 billion tons of ice each year since 2009.
“I don’t want to be alarmist,” Eric Rignot, an Earth systems scientist for both the University of California, Irvine, and NASA, who led the work, toldThe Washington Post. “The places undergoing changes in Antarctica are not limited to just a couple places,” said Rignot. “They seem to be more extensive than what we thought. That, to me, seems to be reason for concern.”
From Inspiring Girls Expeditions: Offering free, wilderness excursions for high school-aged girls, Inspiring Girls Expeditions aims to foster curiosity about the natural world and methods of scientific inquiry. Since 1999 University of Alaska, Fairbanks glaciologist Erin Pettit has led over a dozen “Girls on Ice” trips to Washington’s South Cascade Glacier.
Pettit founded the program because “I wanted to share the inspiration, curiosity, and excitement of using science to learn and explore the mountains. In turn, the girls have taught me about the dreams, and challenges, and amazing variation of lives and experiences for girls from all different communities and cultures across the world.”
Upcoming Girls on Ice expeditions include trips to the Gulkana Glacier in Alaska, Washington’s Mount Baker, the Asulkan Valley in British Columbia, and the Findelen Glacier in Switzerland.
Find out more about Inspiring Girls Expeditions here.
A New Tool for Modeling Glacier Flow
From The Journal of Chemical Physics: Bo Persson, a theoretical physicist at the Jülich Research Center in Germany, has developed an improved model of glacier flow. Persson said his model improves understanding of the cavities that form between ice and bedrock and how water fills these cavities and becomes pressurized.
Persson’s past work has focused on rubber friction and adhesion. “I could take knowledge I have gained during maybe 10 or 15 years of studies of other friction and quickly apply it to the glacier friction problem,” he told the CBC.
The model could help improve estimates of how much glacier melt is contributing to sea level rise around the world.
Last summer, I had the opportunity to travel to Alaska, where I backpacked around the southeastern region visiting the Byron, Matanuska and Raven glaciers. I was not prepared for the overwhelming power of these massive, ancient ice formations. Though they seem unmovable, it is clear they are retreating. It is easier to ignore climate change until you are standing in the wake of it. I left the trip feeling ready to help raise awareness about some of our world’s most sublime but vulnerable terrains.
This Photo Friday, enjoy some images of the Alaskan glaciers captured during my trip.
We are visiting Cordova, Alaska, a fishing village tucked into the southeastern corner of Prince William Sound, best known for the infamous and transformative Exxon-Valdez oil spill of March 1989. We took the Copper River Highway out to the delta of the Copper River, said to be the largest contiguous wetland of the Pacific Coast of North America.
Yes, it was huge, and we only got as far as the Alaganik Slough region… mainly because back in 2012 a flood wiped out a key bridge, at mile 39. This is disappointing, because the road once went as far as the leading edge of Childs Glacier, one of the few one could reach by car. But we saw three glaciers from the highway: Scott, Sheridan, and Sherman (named after civil war generals, it seems).
One of us caught a 16-pound silver salmon, quite late in the season. And we saw a young black bear and a young bull moose.
All of that in our first two days in Cordova. The rest of the time it rained, but then this is a northern temperate rainforest.
This post was originally published on the American Geophysical Union blog on September 24, 2018.
Brady Glacier is a large Alaskan tidewater glacier in the Glacier Bay region that is beginning a period of substantial retreat (Pelto et al. 2013). Pelto et al. (2013) noted that the end of season observed transient snowline averaged 725 m from 2003-2011, well above the 600 m that represents the equilibrium snowline elevation for the glacier to sustain its current size. In 2015, 2016 and 2018, the snowline has been at 900-1000 m. This is leading to thinning across what was much of the accumulation zone. Here we examine Landsat images from 1986 to 2018 to identify signs of this thinning.
In 1986, Point A and B have insignificant rock exposure, while C has a limited single rock nunatak. By 2000, there is bedrock exposed west of Point A and B, with two small nunataks near C. By 2015, there is a 2 km-long bedrock ridge at Point A and a ~1 km-long bedrock ridge at Point B. The snowline in 2015 is just above Point B and C at 900 m. In 2016, on 1 Oct. 2016, after the end of the typical melt season, the snowline is at 900 m. In 2018, the snowline on Sept. 21 is at 1000 m. At Point A the bedrock ridge is now 2300 m long and up to 300 m wide. At Point A, the ridge is 1100 m long. At Point C, a third nunatak has emerged, and the series of nunataks will soon merge into a single ridge.
The persistent high snowlines indicate the consistent accumulation zone is now above 900 m, below this point thinning will continue. The mean elevation of the glacier is at 720 m, and thinning is significant below 1000 m from 1995-2011(Johnson et al, 2013). That is far less than 50 percent the glacier is retaining snowpack, and widespread thinning will drive further retreat of the distributary glacier termini in expanding lakes, noted by Pelto et al. (2013) and a 2016 blog post. Brady Glacier abuts the adjacent Lampugh Glacier that has and will be impacted by a large landslide.
Trick Lakes: In 1986, North and South Trick Lake are proglacial lakes in contact with the glacier. By 2016, the two lakes are no longer in contact with the glacier, water levels have fallen and a third lake, East Trick Lake, has formed. The more recently developed East Trick Lake is the current proglacial Trick Lake, a large glacier river exits this lake and parallels the glacier to the main Brady Glacier terminus, going beneath the glacier for only several hundred meters.
North Deception Lake: Had a limited area in 1986 with no location more than 500 m long. By 2016, retreat has expanded the lake to a length over 2 km. The width of the glacier margin at North Deception Lake will not change in the short term, but the valley widens 2 km back from the current calving front, thus the lake may grow considerably in the future.
South Dixon Lake: This new lake does not have an official name. It did not exist in 1986, 2004, 2007 or 2010. It is nearly circular today and 400 m in diameter.
Dixon Lake: It is likely that retreat toward the main valley of Brady Glacier will lead to increased water depths at Dixon Lake, observations of the depth of this lake do not exist. Retreat from 1986 to 2016 has been 600 m.
Bearhole Lake: Is expanding up valley with glacier retreat, and there are no significant changes in the width of the valley that would suggest a significant increase in calving width could occur in the near future. Currently, the lake is 75 m deep at the calving front, and there has been a 1400 m retreat since 1986 (Capps et. al. 2013).
Spur Lake: It is likely that retreat toward the main valley of Brady Glacier will lead to increased water depths at Spur Lake. The depth has fallen as the surface level fell from 1986-2016 as the margin retreated 600 m, leaving a trimline evident in the 2016 imagery.
Oscar Lake: Has experienced rapid growth with the collapse of the terminus tongue. Depth measurements indicate much of the calving front, which has increased by an order of magnitude since 1986, is over 100 m. The tongue, as seen in a 2014 Google Earth image, will continue to collapse, and water depth should increase as well. The central narrow tongue has retreated less than 200 m since 1986, but the majority of the glacier front has retreated more than 1 km since 1986.
Abyss Lake: Continued retreat will lead to calving width expansion. The retreat from 1986 to 2016 has been 400 m. The water depth has been above 150 m at the calving front for sometime and should remain high.
This week, we feature a video from Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project. Pelto and his team have recorded the mass balance of several glaciers in the North Cascades and Alaska. While on fieldwork, he captured the outflow gushing from the Lower Curtis glacier on camera. Lower Curtis Glacier is located in North Cascades National Park and has been rapidly retreating. It is said to have lost 28 percent of its surface area since the Little Ice Age.
Pelto currently writes for a blog by the American Geophysical Union, From a Glacier’s Perspective. The blog talks about the response of different glaciers to climate change and recent findings on glacier mass balance.
Do you need to cool off from the stifling August heat?
Video of the Week is just what you need! This week we explore the melting ice caves of Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier. Currently about 13 miles long, Mendenhall Glacier has been retreating for hundreds of years, and its melt rate has increased in modern times due to climate change. This melting, paired with failing ice dams, has put Juneau residents at risk for flooding as Mendenhall Lake’s water levels continue to rise.
This has not stopped thousands of people from visiting the glacier every year, however. The Mendenhall glacier is a popular tourist destination that flows from the Juneau Icefield all the way to Mendenhall Lake. In fact, the tourist-accessible features of the glacier are in the planning stages of being redone to incorporate new facilities and trails. Unfortunately, the ice caves featured in the video are not as easily accessible to visitors who want to make the adventure themselves. Mendenhall Glacier’s ice caves typically form and melt away quickly, so this video might have to suffice for now to help you escape this summer’s temperatures.
To learn about how Mendenhall Glacier helps teach about climate change, check out one of our articles from earlier this year.
This Photo Friday, take a look at NASA’s Global Ice Viewer, an online interactive that shows how climate change is impacting glaciers, sea ice and continental ice sheets worldwide. Earlier this month, GlacierHub has also reported that climate change is behind more frequent and powerful avalanches in Alaska. Roughly 10 percent of the world’s surface is covered in ice, but as temperatures rise, the ice is quickly disappearing. Join us in viewing some of Alaska’s great glaciers, before and after several years of intense global warming.
If you wish to view more of Alaska’s glaciers, click here.
The photos displayed below were curated by NASA, but the original collection belongs to the Glacier Photograph Collection, a searchable database of digital photographs operated by the National Snow and Ice Data Center.