Ice matters

  • Tim Lydon


"Now I know a glacier," said Leon, a playwright from New York. We sat across from each other in front of a small driftwood fire, the cool Alaskan evening wrapping us in darkness. Leon had just spent five days with me as an artist-in-residence in the wilderness area where I work. Each day, our near neighbor was the Sumdum Glacier, flowing downward from a snow-clad peak like an ice-blue tear.

"I mean, I'm from New York City, so I don't meet a lot of glaciers," Leon laughed. "To us, they are abstractions that carved the striations in Central Park. But after this week, I know this glacier. And I know if I come back here, it'll be different, smaller. This makes climate change real for me."

Leon is like most people in that glaciers are not a daily feature of his life. Even in the West, where the mountains surrounding us wear the graceful signatures of ice, and the government says thousands of small glaciers still inhabit our snowiest ranges, most people have never seen or touched a glacier. It's understandable. As glaciers retreat into the most remote shadows of our landscape, it becomes ever harder to make their acquaintance.

So I feel lucky. For 20 years, the glaciers of southeast Alaska have been central to my life. I've climbed them and skied on them, kayaked and camped around them, munched on their ice cubes and burned my throat gulping their cold gelid water. I've also worked with scientists to monitor their retreat and study the harbor seals that haul out on their bergs. It's all taught me a lot about the value of ice.

Glaciers help supply nearly a third of the watersheds on Alaska's 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest, the nation's largest forest. Recent research from the University of Alaska Southeast shows those glacial streams deliver uniquely valuable nutrition to nearby oceans -- some of that nutrition close to 4,000 years old. Marine microbes appear to favor the ancient material, quickly transforming it to living biomass for a food web that includes the world's richest salmon fishery.

In other words, glaciers feed much of the food of our food. More than mere scenery, they are active participants in the ecosystems that support us. Maybe that's why the early Tlingit people of Alaska attributed living spirits to glaciers as well as to other landscape features we moderns consider inanimate.

Providing sustenance is something that glaciers do globally. Consider the Himalayas, home of the planet's largest concentration of non-polar glaciers. Here, ice feeds Asia's great rivers, including the Yangtze and Mekong, and supports 2 billion people -- close to a third of humanity -- in China, India and a dozen other countries. Ice supplies the steady flows for drinking water, agriculture and electricity.

The same is true for the Andes, where millions of people in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador get most of their electricity from glacier-fed hydropower. Take away the glaciers, and the lights will go out. Grazing alpacas -- and many other creatures, including humans -- will end up  thirsty.

Just as fundamental as food, we have ice to thank for today's sea level, and the associated coastlines cradling the world's largest cities. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, glaciers hold back enough fresh water worldwide to raise the oceans by 230 feet, a water-storage achievement that might even impress the Army Corps of Engineers.

Ice has a hand in the clouds swirling overhead, too. Where the world's glaciers pump cold water into the sea, global ocean currents are born that deliver clouds for shade, rain for crops, snow for skiing.

None of this speaks to the aesthetic value of glaciers. Some of my fondest memories of traveling the West are visits to glaciers in Washington, Montana and the one remaining glacier in Nevada's Great Basin National Park. I remember a thrilling day off-trail high in Colorado's Gore Range, happening upon a hunk of blue ice I thought could never exist so far south.

But today glaciers provide yet another service. As hinted at by Leon, they warn us against messing with the climate. Where I work, glaciers are undergoing a loss of volume so severe it can no longer be termed mere recession. They are collapsing, deflating, vanishing -- taking with them a host of benefits that we young, foolish humans are only beginning to comprehend. We need to heed their warning: It's not just that we are losing ice, but that we are unraveling the fundamental systems that support all life on Earth.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a wilderness ranger in southeast Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Peter Amschel
Peter Amschel
Aug 03, 2011 01:51 AM

You say: "Take away the glaciers, and the lights will go out." but the truth is: "Take away the river dams and levees and everything will be ok."
America was the first to plug all of its earth2ocean rivers, and it wasn't just for watering daisies. Bu-Wreck itself says: (
"From 1940 through 1945, Reclamation powerplants produced 47 billion kWh of electricity, enough to make:
69,000 airplanes 79,000 machine guns
5,000 ships 7,000,000 aircraft bombs, and
5,000 tanks 31,000,000 shells."
If you had surveyed the general American public in 1930 as follows: "Assume that humans get so high and mighty that they can dam and levee-off in thousands of locations every mountain2ocean river on earth?" The answer would be to the effect that humans would never be dumb enough to let that happen because of all the tremendously averse effects to the earth which would be sure to occur including ocean dead zones from halting the flow of dead fish and all the other fish food nutrients and sand itself which would be trapped behind dams; the obvious result to migratory fish species, global warming, loss of ice pack, and whole seasons of rain on one day in places like Australia and Pakistan from monkeying with the hydrologic water cycle. People of only one generation ago, even though they would be looking through a glass darkly would say: "To dam and levee off every mountain2ocean river would be the worst thing that could be done to the hydrologic water cycle! The hydologic water cycle requires that the water be continuously cycling, that is, kept moving, not stopped up behind Bu-Wreck dams!"
It is not simplistic to say that the dams and levees are bringing all these problems including the one you mention . No, it is not simplistic to blame dams and levees because the plugging and channelling of every one of the earths' mountains2oceans rivers has been one of man's most amazing feats. Thank God this process is finally starting to be reversed and we are bringing down more and more of these abominations. Warren Buffet, what is your stand on this issue? You are the most prominent person involved in this ruinous river wrecking and you should be the first to say it's true and to start to undue the damage your Klamath dams are doing and have done.

P. Amschel