I spent the summers of 2007 and 2008 on a glacier in southeast Alaska, with 12 people and 200 huskies. I was working as a dogsled guide, and each morning I'd pull myself from my sleeping bag, slip on my raincoat and boots, and step from my tent into the pale light of the Northern summer, the glacier luminous beneath me in the rising sun.
Eight times a day, a distant purr would echo over the mountains, and a line of helicopters grew in the sky until they were right above us, whipping our hair and filling our ears with the sound of engines.
I waited by my sled as the passengers disembarked, then led them on a tour, skimming across the ice field in gentle silence before returning to the waiting choppers and preparing for the next run. At night, when the last round of helicopters had disappeared, my co-workers and I would feed the dogs and return to our tents to sleep.
In its vast presence, stretching beneath us and curving around the bases of neighboring mountains, the glacier was simple, and it was home.
Glaciers, it seems, are a hot subject these days, although their condition is often debated. Some say the glaciers are melting: Sea levels will rise, coastlines will erode, drinking water will carry more salt. Or, alternately, the glaciers are growing: Climate change is a hoax, mass hysteria, scientifically bogus. Like the polar bear, the fragility of glaciers has come to symbolize a world on the brink of disaster, a dying fragment of a cooler past.
"We've got to save the glaciers," I've heard people say, as if this were on their to-do list for the afternoon, somewhere between Fight Poverty and End World Hunger. As if they and the glaciers were old friends.
Here is the truth: Yes, some glaciers are growing. Norris Glacier, the one I think of, somewhat arrogantly, as "mine," has grown for the past three years. In the short term, however, a glacier's growth has more to do with precipitation than temperature. Winter snow builds up and insulates the underlying ice layers; if any snow remains by autumn, it will have compacted enough to become part of the glacier itself. Summer rain has the opposite effect, melting the snow as it trickles through, widening crevasses and flowing beneath the ice in mineral-rich streams.
Last July and August, it rained virtually every day in Juneau, so much that some of my fellow guides wore neoprene wetsuits to keep warm. In the mornings we had to rearrange the doghouses, and in the evenings we would gather for tent-moving parties, pushing the tents around on wooden skis so that the camp's overall arrangement was constantly fluctuating. If we forgot, the doghouses and tents formed pedestals as the surrounding snow melted away with the rain.
Often, on particularly wet mornings, I would awake to discover my entire tent tilted sideways; it had "risen" to such a degree during the night that it began to slide on its own.
Despite this, a record layer of snow remained at the end of summer, and so the glacier grew.
Here, then, is a second truth, puzzling in its seeming contradiction: Some glaciers grow, temporarily, because of global warming. Increased evaporation in one part of the world can lead to greater snowfall elsewhere, which, in the short term, thickens glaciers and ice fields. But any argument that cites growing glaciers as evidence against climate change is scientifically unsound; eventually, glacial retreat due to higher temperatures will negate the effects of a few years' heavier snowpack.
From an ecological standpoint, I find melting glaciers to be one of the least worrisome impacts of climate change; far more alarming are the shrinking polar ice caps, the spread of invasive species and the rise in severe weather events.
From a personal standpoint, however, I feel differently. I think of my memories on the Norris, of clumsy poker nights in the community tent, the cards sticky from humidity; of riding the sled on a smooth trail, my dogs bounding joyfully just ahead; of sitting cross-legged in the snow at sunset, the orange sky reflected in the gentle slope of the ice field. And I wonder, when the glaciers are gone, will these things, too, melt away?
Blair Braverman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). This summer she's working as a naturalist at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies in Colorado.