No-Fly Zone Administered Over Glacier Crash Site

In 1952, a military plane crashed into Mount Gannett, 50 miles east of Anchorage, killing all 52 service members on board. The plane was located in 2012 at Colony Glacier, but it has taken years to retrieve the remains as rescuers can only travel to the crash site in June, when conditions are safest on the glacier. Over this time, the receding glacier has made the crash site more visible, but it has also enticed sightseers on helicopters, who risk disturbing the remains or removing artifacts. As a result, a no-fly zone has been administered this month by the Federal Aviation Administration to stop people from disturbing the crash site.

To date, 35 human remains have been repatriated, but it may take several more years to retrieve the remaining 17. The plane went down in the Chugach Mountain range, one of the snowiest locations in Alaska. During the winter of 1952-1953, in the Chugach’s Thompson Pass, a record 81 feet of snow was recorded. Colony Glacier remains dangerous due to deep crevasses, variable weather and sharp pieces of ice.

Erin Pettit, an associate professor of glaciology at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, told GlacierHub about similar plane crashes that have been buried beneath glaciers. “There are a handful around the world – at least one in Greenland and one in Antarctica. Sometimes they weren’t ‘lost’ in the sense that no one knew what happened, but they just couldn’t extract the plane,” she said. “The plane was absorbed by the glacier and won’t re-emerge for hundreds or even thousands of years, depending on where it landed and how big the glacier is.”

When a plane crashes into a glacier, it is covered by snowfall and over time freezes into the glacier. When the glacier moves downslope, the plane moves along with it, until it is later revealed at the front of the glacier. Warmer temperatures speed this process up.

Flowpath of Colony Glacier (Source: Bob McNabb).

Bob McNabb, a glaciologist at the University of Alaska, calculated the speed and trajectory of the flowpath of the Colony Glacier and made a map for GlacierHub. Using a back-of-the-envelope calculation, McNabb said the plane traveled 23 kilometers along the flowpath, which means it would have traveled one meter per year. Using this analysis, which involved the use of satellites, McNabb calculated that the average surface velocity would have been about 1.5 meters per year.

Michael Loso, a physical scientist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, told GlacierHub that Colony Glacier has a velocity of about 3 feet per day, saying, “That’s fast but not unreasonably fast for a big Alaskan glacier.”

Alaska has a higher rate of plane crashes than the rest of the United States for reasons like frequent inclement weather, jagged terrain, which can be obscured by clouds, and the fact that flying is the only way to get to certain remote places. The cause of the 1952 crash has never been determined.

Loso added that such crashes at glaciers are not that uncommon, saying, “Many glaciers are in mountains, and planes run into mountains every once in awhile.”

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As glaciers melt, bodies resurface

In June 2012, an Alaska Army National Guard helicopter was flying over the Colony Glacier on a routine training flight when the crew noticed bits of wreckage scattered on the ice. The twisted metal, bits of cloth and other debris turned out to be all that was left of a C-124 Globemaster II troop transport that crashed in 1952, killing all 52 people on board.

In June of this year, the Department of Defense said it identified the remains of 17 servicemen from the crash site. “It’s taken 60 years for the wreckage and portions of the plane to actually come out of the glacier underneath all that ice and snow,” said Gregory Berg, a forensic anthropologist for the military, in a 2012 interview. “It’s starting to erode out now.”

The crash site was nothing like that of a nearly intact World War II-era fighter found in the Sahara. Because of the to the glacier’s splitting ice crevasses, much of the plane, and the plane’s remaining crew, are likely still frozen after 60 years. The location of the troop transport, which was known not long after the crash, had been lost because of the glacier’s movement and the opening and closing of those crevasses.

The reappearance of a long-lost body in the ice isn’t a new thing and will likely become more common as global climate change melts more ice, revealing the frozen corpses of people thought to be missing forever.

The most famous glacier find happened over two decades ago. In 1991, two German tourists were climbing the Similaun peak on a sunny afternoon in the Italian Alps near the Austrian border when they spied a body lying facedown and half-frozen in the ice. What was left of the body’s skin was hardened, light brown in color, and stretched tightly across its skeleton.

The man the tourists found turned out to be more than 5,000 years old. Named Ötzi, after the Ötzal region of the Alps he was found in, the natural mummy provided a look into Copper Age Europe. He had tools, clothes and even shoes frozen along with him. Ötzi’s remarkable preservation (he’s Europe’s oldest natural mummy) was due to him being covered in snow and later ice shortly after death, shielding him from decay.

Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)
Ötzi the Iceman, a well-preserved natural mummy of a Chalcolithic (Copper Age) man from about 3300 BC, who was found in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier in the Ötztal Alps, near Hauslabjoch on the border between Austria and Italy. (South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology)

Last summer, elsewhere in the Alps, a rescue helicopter pilot spotted something that shouldn’t be in the glaciers surrounding the Matterhorn: abandoned equipment and clothing wrapped around bones. Those remains turned out to be those of 27-year-old British climber Jonathan Conville, who had disappeared on the mountain in 1979. Hundreds of people have been reported missing from the area surrounding the Matterhorn and melting ice means more of them might be found.

The tiny town of Peio, high up in the Italian Alps, has grown accustomed to this phenomenon. Once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the peaks, caves and glaciers around Peio were the scene of heavy fighting during World War I between Imperial and Italian forces. From 1915-1918, the two sides fought along the hundreds of miles of the Italian Front where more than a million soldiers died and two million more were wounded in the aptly named White War.

Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. (Laura Spinney/The Telegraph)
Funeral in Peio, 2012, of two soldiers who fell at the Battle of Presena, May 1918. (Laura Spinney/The Telegraph)

As the Alpine glaciers melt high above Peio, rifles, equipment, bits of tattered uniforms and even letters and diaries from a hundred years ago again see the light of day. Though many of these relics are displayed in the town’s war museum, many more are looted by treasure hunters hoping to resell them on the black market.

The frozen, mummified bodies of the Italian and Austro-Hungarian soldiers have also started to resurface. In 2012, two soldiers who died in the 1918 Battle of Presena were given a military funeral in Peio. When they died, the two young Austrian fighters were buried top-to-toe in a crevasse in the Presena Glacier. As with the Alaska crash, only the glacier decides when and where to give up a body. But humans, by changing our planet’s atmosphere and climate, are giving glaciers a strong nudge.

The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. (Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento)
The remains of two Austrian soldiers found on the Presena Glacier in 2012. (Office for Archaeological Finds, Autonomous Province of Trento)
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