First-time Visits to an Alaskan Glacier Just Got More Expensive

A view of the snout of Matanuska Glacier (Source: Frank K./Creative Commons).

The thought of being able to drive right up to a glacier seems strange to most people. However, that is how visitors have accessed Matanuska Glacier in Alaska thanks to a privately-owned road that leads to a parking area near the glacier’s debris-covered section.

For years, visitors with various experiences and interests have been able to enjoy first-hand the majesty of Alaska’s largest glacier, measuring 26 miles in length. Yet, the company that owns the road and runs one of twelve independent enterprises that offer tours of Matanuska recently required that all first-time visitors pay a $100 fee for a guided tour if they want any first-time access to the glacier.

A view of a visitor to Matanuska (Source: Alaska Dispatch News/Twitter).

This new requirement has some locals and tourists up in arms. While the company Matanuska Glacier Park LLC cites safety issues as the main reason for this new requirement, some visitors remain unhappy that the $100 guided tour is now the only option offered to first-timers. After their first visit, guided tours are no longer necessary, and visitors have the option of buying a ticket for $20.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Bill Stevenson, the owner of Matanuska Glacier Park LLC, which operates Matanuska Glacier Adventures, explained that the three-hour guided tour has been $100 for quite some time, despite more recent controversy.

He acknowledged that the new requirement that first-time visitors must pay for the guided tour is one that upsets visitors. However, there are many admission options, he says, including $20 tickets. He maintains that the guided tour with an experienced guide provides a lot of information about a “fascinating part of nature” for first-time visitors. He describes the glacier as “very user-friendly” and the sloping toe of the glacier as very gradual, making it easy to walk around.

However, not all visitors and locals are convinced the steep fee for first-timers is the right course of action. “One of the most special things about living in Alaska is having incredible access to nature,” Alaskan resident Rachel Kaplan explained to GlacierHub. “Putting a high fee on that access limits who can visit.” While she does understand the potential safety concerns, she went on to say that “having a high fee to access the glacier really bothers me.”

Ice climbing on Matanuska Glacier (Source: BD/Twitter).

Stevenson made it clear to GlacierHub that the tour company is not the sole source of income for his company. As the leaseholder for the road, he plays many roles. His company has chosen to share the glacier with 11 other independent tour companies in the area, he noted, providing more than enough business to go around with 20,000 annual visitors to the glacier.

The fees for guided tours at other tour companies in the area also vary for visitors, including those for first-time visitors. While fees at Matanuska Glacier Adventures is on the expensive side, some of the other tour companies are charging higher fees for access.

Climate change further complicates matters. Stevenson told GlacierHub, “No question, we’ve had a decline in the mass of ice.” He estimates that Matanuska loses about 30 feet per year in length. Perhaps, as glacier recession continues, a $100 price tag for admission to one of the world’s disappearing resources will seem less significant. The drive-up location itself may be worth the fee.

Photo Friday: Alaska’s Matanuska Glacier

It started with a road trip. A “bucket-list trip,” according to Tish  Millard, a photographer from Prince Rupert, Canada. Millard and her husband decided to drive the over 4,660 miles there-and-back, along the the Alaskan and Dalton highways to “dance in the Midnight Sun,” as she puts it. They passed through Fairbanks, Anchorage, Valdez, Wasilla, and crossing into the Arctic Circle, before arriving at Matanuska.

Speaking to GlacierHub, Millard said that her passion for glaciers came from her time in the unique town of Stewart-Hyder, and visits to the nearby Salmon Glacier. Remarkably, is the only land border crossing where a person may legally enter the United States without reporting for inspection, as the settlement spans the American-Canadian border.

The terminus of Matanuska Glacier and its proglacial lake (Source: Tish Millard)

Matanuska is 27 miles long, and over 4 miles wide – making it the largest glacier in America that can be reached by vehicle. Remarking on her first reactions upon arriving at the terminus of Matanuska, Millard said she was “transfixed by the glacier’s beauty.” But it was the creaks, cracks, rumblings, and groans coming from the glacier which made their greatest impression – “The noises it made were mystical.” To top off the “unforgettable experience,” Matanuska was the first glacier Millard had ever walked on – she described it as “surreal.” The surface of the glacier is a beautiful pale blue, mantled by snow and streaks of black soot – detritus blown across the state from wildfires.

It is heavily crevassed, which can make certain traverses challenging and dangerous. Deeper into the glacier, climbers from Anchorage regularly clamber up hundreds of feet of jagged pinnacles of ice.

The heavily crevassed surface of Matanuska Glacier (Source: Tish Millard)
The heavily crevassed terminus of Matanuska Glacier (Source: Tish Millard)

Three-and-a-half trillion tons of water have melted from Alaska’s glaciers since the 1950s, according the USGS. And they are unlikely to recover this year, as Spring temperatures averaged a sweltering 89.6°F – warmer than Washington D.C. Jake Weltzin, a phenologist with the USGS, commented that this year has “turned the state into a melting pot, almost literally.”

Historically, the Matanuska has been little affected by rising temperatures over the past 30 years, and consistently advances approximately one foot each day. However, with consistent record-breaking temperatures, early onset of the melt season, and lowering surface albedo thanks to the deposited wildfire debris, the this may be the year that significant retreat begins.

View of the Matanuska Glacier valley (Source: Tish Millard)
View of the Matanuska Glacier valley (Source: Tish Millard)

Far below the ice of a distant moon: Life?

An artist's impression of the European Space Agency's JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)
An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency’s JUICE probe mission to Europa. (ESA/AOES)

Mars rovers have been tested in Death Valley and Peru. Apollo astronauts used Meteor Crater in Arizona to simulate walking on the moon. Now glaciers have their part to play as stand-ins for outer space.

The Jupiter’s icy moon Europa is the destination, Alaska’s Matanuska glacier is the training ground. Scientists think that an ocean of liquid water exists below Europa’s ice-covered surface. To practice getting to it, NASA researchers are testing a robotic probe called VALKYRIE that can use a laser-powered drill to bore down into the Alaskan glacier.

A separate group of researchers (this time from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) is working on a rover that can swim around underneath the ice. Like the VALKYRIE team, the ice rover is also doing its testing in Alaska.

What’s at stake for projects like these might turn out to be the greatest scientific discovery yet: life outside of earth.

Recently, President Obama requested $15 million to begin developing a mission to Europa for NASA’s 2015 budget. Last month, NASA issued proposals for science equipment on the eventual Europa probe, though it remains to be seen if either the laser drill or the ice rover will make the cut. The mission is tentatively scheduled for the mid-2020s. The European Space Agency is also planning a flyby mission, which will be expected to launch in 2022.

When the two NASA Viking probes landed on Mars in the 1970s, one of the primary mission goals was to search for life outside of Earth. When none was found, attention slowly shifted to Europa, the smallest of Jupiter’s four Galilean moons, as the likeliest source of extraterrestrial life in the solar system.
Brown ridges crisscross Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. Scientists believe a ocean lies beneath the surface that might harbor life. (NASA/PLAN-PIA01641)

Europa’s relatively smooth, icy surface is marked by thousands of reddish-brown scratches, as if someone dragged a rusty fork across a cue ball. Many scientists believe a giant ocean exists just below the ice, made warmer by the tidal pull from Jupiter, which creates friction that generates ice-melting heat. In these relatively temperate waters, alien creatures might be swimming. Life on Europa has been the speculation of science fiction for decades, from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1987 novel 2061: Odyssey Three to the more recent movie Europa Report.

Both the NASA and the ESA missions will try to prove whether or not there is an ocean beneath the surface. Europa does emit water vapor plumes frequently in the same manner that geysers on Earth do. If the ocean turns out to exist, it would contain twice as much water as Earth’s oceans, according to the NASA website.

Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska's Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa's thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)
Scientists lower the VALKYRIE robot into the Alaska’s Matanuska glacier. Something similar might be used to drill through Europa’s thick ice. (Lisa Grossman/New Scientist)

Most scientists and researchers agree that while Mars may have once supported life, Europa may support life right now. Whatever the eventual missions find near Jupiter, there will be a need to run tests on our planet’s own glaciers, conveniently located only a few thousand miles from NASA’s headquarters.