Changing Glaciers and Shifting Attitudes

Candice Gaukel Andrews August 13, 2013 12
Alaska glacier

There’s something about seeing a glacier sliding into a fjord that always makes me misty-eyed. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Giant-sized, creaky, and cold, glaciers have always intrigued me. Ancient beings, they measure their time in the thousands of years, in a way that we humans have little experience understanding. That’s why, wherever I travel, if there’s a glacier nearby, I rush to see it.

I’ve been fortunate enough to encounter glaciers in places such as New Zealand, Patagonia, and recently again, in Alaska. As much as I revel in seeing them, I relish hearing them: their roars, groans, crackles, and thunder. And, I have to admit, they’ve always left me a bit teary. Many times in front of a glacier, I’ve had to turn away and collect myself so I’m not embarrassed in public.

On my latest trip to Alaska, however, as I stood before the Northwestern Glacier on a tour boat, I heard something I hadn’t heard before. Human sniffles.

And for the first time, they weren’t coming from me.

Are we, in the general public, finally past arguing if climate change is real, and are we all becoming more attuned to what we’re in jeopardy of losing?

Shrinking ice

Glacier close-up

Worldwide, glaciers have been losing mass since at least the 1970s. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

The last time I saw the Northwestern Glacier was seven years ago. I was on the same sort of tour boat. Then, as now, as we approached the glacier’s edge where it slides into the fjord, camera shutters began to snap like crazy. Then, as now, the ship’s captain cut the motor when we got near so that we could listen to the “breaths” of this great creature. But I think when I was here more than half a decade ago it’s fair to say that I was the only one with tears in my eyes. So this time when I saw some bowed heads, some wiping away with the fingertips at the corners of eyes, and heard some sniffles of the nose coming from those around me, I was caught by surprise.

Worldwide, on average, glaciers have been losing mass since at least the 1970s, although measurements from a smaller number of glaciers suggest that they have been shrinking since the 1940s. Over the last decade, the rate at which glaciers have been retreating appears to have accelerated, which has contributed to changes in sea levels.

All three U.S. benchmark glaciers (the Gulkana Glacier and Wolverine Glacier in Alaska and the South Cascade Glacier in Washington) have shown an overall decline in mass since the 1950s and an accelerated rate of decline in recent years. While year-to-year trends with some glaciers do vary — such as with the Wolverine Glacier, which gained mass during the 1980s — most of the measurements indicate a loss over time.

This trend for the three benchmark glaciers is consistent with the retreat of other glaciers throughout Alaska, the western United States, and in other parts of the world. The loss of glacial mass is also in line with warming trends in U.S. and global temperatures during this same time period.

Growing concern

Nowhere is this trend being brought to the public’s attention more than in Glacier National Park in Montana. Once home to about 150 glaciers, the park now has 25. By 2020, there may be no glaciers at all left here. Researchers say that earlier models predicting a glacier-free Glacier National Park by 2030 appear to have underestimated rising temperatures: twelve of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last fifteen.

Glacier from the air

I do find solace in knowing that there are now many who appreciate what we’re losing. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In the Tongass National Forest near Juneau, Alaska, the Mendenhall Glacier has thinned and retreated hundreds of feet since visitors first started going there in the late 1800s. Long-term climate models suggest a warmer, wetter pattern coming to this part of Alaska, which could mean more rain and less snow at lower elevations. That could intensify runoff and the frequency of flood surges. But, in contrast, more precipitation could also bring more snow to higher elevations. Greater annual snowfall, repeated over many years, could cause some glaciers, or portions of them, to grow as snow compacts into the ice.

The paradoxical behavior of the planet’s glaciers — glaciers growing and glaciers shrinking with more rain, more snow, and more heat — can be difficult to understand in the brief time that most tourists spend standing in front of a glacier on foot or on a tour boat. Overall, though, I think the message is getting through that we are losing them. And I do find solace in knowing that there are now others who get misty-eyed in their presence, too.

Do you think, as a nation, we’re becoming more cognizant of what the world’s glaciers are showing us? Is the debate over whether we’re experiencing rapid, largely human-caused climate change over?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

12 Comments »

  1. Muriel Shiff August 13, 2013 at 4:46 pm - Reply

    Dear Candy:o
    I’m not sure this is a good comment to send forth! I’ve been convinced for years there is a man made climate change. However when I hear elected US congressmen & senators deny such a thing, I question how much individuals can do, other than note vote these people back in!

  2. Muriel Shiff August 13, 2013 at 4:47 pm - Reply

    Dear Candy:
    I’m not sure this is a good comment to send forth! I’ve been convinced for years there is a man made climate change. However when I hear elected US congressmen & senators deny such a thing, I question how much individuals can do, other than not vote these people back in!

    • Jennifer Mullady August 14, 2013 at 6:44 am - Reply

      Muriel:
      There is a lot you can do – and you alone. Participate in conservation groups, become aware of regulatory policies, and do not be afraid to speak up. Maintain your own green policies, and those around you will follow.

      Many of the conservation groups write to congressional offices, and need your support. This may be in the form of submitting a letter (don’t worry, they will type a template for you!) or some type of volunteer work; be prepared to donate what time you can for the issues that matter most to you. You will be amazed at what you can do – your voice matters.

  3. Cindy Oakley August 14, 2013 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Those of us who are in tune with nature and the environment clearly believe in global warming and man made climate change. Unfortunately, there are many people who take our planet for granted and think mother nature goes through natural cycles and will one day correct itself. They do not think about the increased population, number of vehicles, residences and businesses who produce increased amounts of (carbon), greenhouse gases which directly affect climate.

    For more information, please visit: http://climaterealityproject.org/leadership-corps/.

  4. Noelle August 14, 2013 at 10:30 am - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this with us. The posting is sad and only serves to highlight concerns integral to conservation and the imperativeness of conservation. It moves us to consider that we all can make a difference by making little changes in our lives so that it becomes a lifestyle and thus serves to promote conservation.

    It’s not what we say, it is what we do that convicts others, creates a desire in others, to want to emulate what we do and become better at it than we are.

    ‘To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right’. Confucius.

  5. Chris du Plessis August 14, 2013 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Candice, I’ve read your article with real interest, and I think that, by and large, there is a greater understanding among the wider public of what is happening to our planet. The problem, of course, is that as long as world leaders (political, financial and industrial) refuse to join the party, there is very little we (the general public) can do. Money and power hungry “leaders” rule the world, and the majority of them are ruthless and unscrupulous. The biggest culprits are the USA, Japan and China.

  6. Paul Hein August 14, 2013 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    It is quite sad. The evidence is right in front of us and yet we choose to do next to nothing.

  7. Chris Crothers August 14, 2013 at 4:33 pm - Reply

    I took my wife up to Alaska in June to show her where my old stomping grounds were. It had been 25 years since I was there last. I told her about Portage Glacier that is outside of Whittier (40 miles south of Anchorage) and was anxious to show her that one. Now there is a Visitor’s Center there and you need to take a boat out just to see the glacier. When I was there last, the glacier was very visible from shore by visitor’s parking and there were ice chunks the size of trucks out in the bay. Nevermore… The Matanuska Glacier has also receded remarkably since I was there last. Frankly it is sad to see them disappear.

  8. Ellen Girardeau Kempler August 15, 2013 at 4:04 am - Reply

    I’m sniffling, too, Candice. Attitudes may be shifting, but not fast enough to stop the melting and environmental crisis.

  9. Sandra Adams August 15, 2013 at 8:11 am - Reply

    @Chris: I was also at Portage Glacier in 06 and then again in 09 and in those 3 years, I couldn’t believe how much the glacier had retreated. Like you, I saw it when it was visible from the parking lot and chunks of ice bits where floating. Just in those 3yrs all of that was gone.

    @Candice: I feel the same way about icebergs and glaciers. I’ve been lucky to see them in several countries and have notice the significant changes. One can only hope things are starting to sink in. Nice article by the way.

  10. Candice Gaukel Andrews August 15, 2013 at 8:16 am - Reply

    Chris C. and Sandra,

    Your stories really do put things in perspective! It seems more and more of us ARE noticing.

    Thank you, all, for the thoughtful comments.

    — C.G.A.

  11. Ken McBroom January 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm - Reply

    I lived in Juneau for a few years back in the lat 90′s. I remember how much snow fell that first winter I was there it was something like 92 inches in November alone. I worked all over Alaska for another 13 years after leaving Juneau and I was able to see the retreating of glaciers throughout the state and it was disturbing really. I climbed Stroller White in Juneau when I lived there and we sat up top looking at the ice flows it was awesome. Great article, it really brought back memories. Thanks

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