"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 (hcn.org). He is a wilderness ranger in southeast Alaska.