Undoubtably one of the main reasons people cruise Alaska is for the natural beauty and in particular to have the opportunity to view glaciers. We all hear the talk of the effect of ozone and global warming as the reason the glaciers are receeding. It is a political/business issue more than anything else. There is no doubt that it has a very small effect; more like we are giving it a nudge. This is not to say we should not do everything in our power to minimize our contribution to global warming.
The reality is that the earth, over hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years goes through periods of warming and then periods of ice ages. The glaciers and changes in Alaska has really bin in just the last 10,000 years. In recent centuries, long before human contributions to global warming, the glaciers in Alaska have been receeding. They had actually been advancing from the 1680’s through the first recorded findings of Captain Vancouver in the mid 1750’s. From his discovery in the 1750’s to present day, the glaciers in Glacier Bay National Park have receeded over 65 miles, most of that distance prior to the 1900’s and the beginning of the industrial revolution.
I have been fortunate to previously visit Sawyer Glacier at the end of Tracy Arm Fjord just south of Juneau, the Mendenhal Glacier outside of Juneau, as well as the massive Hubbard Glacier, located north of the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park which we cruised yesterday. There remains less than a dozen tidewater glaciers within the park with many more having receeded and now considered alpine glaciers. Many of the remaining tidewater glaciers could be viewed as we sailed by the many inlets to the bay and certainly others appeared to be clinging to the mountain sides.
The rugged cliffs lining Glacier Bay reached the mountain tops to heights of between 5000 and 6000 feet. In the distance ice covered peaks reached skyward to amazing altitudes in the clear blue sky. Mount Fairweather at 15,300 feet being the tallest, followed by Mount Quincy Adams at 13,650 feet, and others in the 12,000+ feet.
The remaining tidewater glaciers are at the head of the bay so it took several hours after entering the bay before we encountered the first glacier, Reid Glacier, quickly followed by Lamplugh Glacier. The ship then steered into Tar Inlet where there were two glaciers. The Grand Pacific Glacier was at the end of the inlet. This is a “dirty” glacier. The Grand Pacific starts in Canada, the border of which is only a few miles up the glacier. As this, and all glaciers do, it picks up gravel, rocks, and dirt as it grinds away at the mountain sides and valley floors, but this glaciers was full of this debris.
Off to the left side of this glacier is the Margerie Glacier. This glacier is badically white ice with the debris only eveident on either side of the glacier. In such a massive environment, any perspective is totally lost. The Margerie Glacier is approximately 250 feet high and over a mile wide. Our ship sailed so close that the glacier was gigantic but certainly hard to believe it was over a mile long. In reality, the ship was between ¼ mile to ½ mile from the face of the glacier.
The face of the glacier was full of vertical crevices with big leaning chunks of ice defying gravity. The surface was very jagged, looking like crystal sugar candy rocks. We were very fortunate to see about four or five instances when the glacier ‘calved’ during the hour we sat in front of the glacier. ‘Calving’ is when parts of the glacier breaks away from the face and falls into the chilly water. The glacier actually talks to you. Occasionally you hear crackling and sounds like gun shots. This is the force of gravity pulling the ice down the mountain sides. At some point you hear a loud pop and crunching sound and suddenly large chunks of the glacier falls from the face with a thunderous crash and spectacular splash, with large rippling waves spreading symetrically from the point of impact of the ice with the sea towards the ship.
The ship also sailed into John’s Hopkins Inlet to view Johns Hopkins Glacier before the three hour cruise out of Glacier Bay towards our next port-of-call, Skagway. As we sailed towards the entrance of the bay we saw what was either Orcas or Porpoises heading in! This was definitely “An Ice Day”.
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