Old friends are melting away


I met this glacier nearly 20 years ago. It was remote and unnamed, and I called it the "Raw Glacier" for the primordial way its blue snout bulged through a granite canyon. It was a mile long.

I was a young East Coaster, new to southeast Alaska. The glaciers swept up my imagination. They changed me. I soon became a ranger for the Forest Service, working in ice-carved fjords and camping beside tidewater glaciers.

The Raw Glacier was slowly retreating, but I still believed it would last forever. I certainly thought it would be around for my children; it was just so big. But today, its retreat has become a wholesale collapse, and each summer brings startling decay. It's like watching a friend succumb to a wasting disease.

The first sign that the Raw Glacier was in trouble came eight years ago, when a tributary shrank away from the main trunk. It was a pretty icefall, curving down a 700-foot wall. I didn't think it was anything fatal.

Then, five years ago, during the record-setting heat of 2004, a big hole opened in the glacier. Where it tumbled over a ridge, granite suddenly poked through the blue ice, like an open sore.

Three years ago, the wound widened, eroding away the right side of a once robust cascade. For the first time, I worried about the glacier's future.  The next summer, the wound spread leftward, eventually cutting the glacier in half. It left a half-mile limb of ice lying unfed on the valley floor. The severed ice turned black and gangrenous. Above, a stump of living ice still hung from an alpine valley.

This past summer started hopeful. For the third consecutive winter, massive snows pummeled our mountains. Maybe it will be a cool summer, I thought. But a heat wave in May stretched into June. Approaching solstice, the sun blasted the snowpack for 18 hours a day. July 4th was near 90 degrees.

The Raw Glacier's river exploded. It was hypnotic, erupting in muddy rooster tails and tossing volleyball-sized rocks. But it was repulsive, too. The glacier was hemorrhaging, bleeding away many winters of ice. I wanted to hold back the flood with my hands. At midsummer, researchers announced that our recent big winters would not stall the rapid recession of Alaska's glaciers. Summers have become too long and too warm.

Late summer brought a return of our usual cloudiness. But the cool relief came too late for the Raw Glacier. Its protective snow gone, the sides of the glacier continued shrinking inward. It looked emaciated above the big canyon that it had filled in better times.

It's autumn now. Shorter, cooler days have slowed the melting. I pay a late-season visit to the Raw and wish it a long winter with heaps of snow. But each time I turn away, I know the glacier can't survive much longer, regardless of the snowpack.

This glacier, of course, is not alone. I work near three tidewater glaciers, with scores of others high in the alpine. Each of them is sick. One developed a new hole this summer, which leaked muddy debris onto its belly. Another shed a massive lobe that used to hang above tree line. One of the big tidewater glaciers lost a quarter-mile, leaving scabby ice stuck to the fiord wall ahead of it.

My summers, once full of adventurous romps at the edge of the Ice Age, now feel like shifts at a sick ward. In every direction, glaciers are disappearing. What's happening here is mirrored in Olympic National Park, North Cascades National Park, and Montana's Glacier National Park.

We know that disappearing ice means rising sea levels, water shortages, less fish habitat, and rearranged ocean currents that will alter global weather patterns.

But something else bothers me today. At the Raw Glacier I watched ice lose its timelessness. You get to thinking that glaciers are forever, like a giant sequoia or the Grand Canyon. They are big, ancient forces that inspire humility. Made from the snow of thousands of winters, glaciers aren't supposed to shrivel up in a few short years. And timelessness is only part of their wonder. There's the creaky voice of ice bending over bedrock, or the echoed roar of a big calving. There are the mysterious capillaries that carry rushing streams through a glacier's heart, and the goats, terns, seals and even the occasional blue bear that thrive along the earth's colder edges.

Scientists warn us about the ecological dangers of losing the world's ice. But today, watching one of my favorite glaciers disappear, I know we are also losing something closer to the human heart.

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.

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 [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds