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Global Warming: Vanishing Glaciers

Climate change is starting to make its mark on some popular travel spots. The ice fields of the West are especially feeling the heat.

glacier and cruise ship, Alaska
Photo caption
A cruise ship noses up to South Sawyer Glacier in Alaska.

Every language should have a word to convey the specific, heart-splitting thrill you feel when a jagged spire of frosted, aqua blue ice the size of a 20-story building splits off the face of a massive frozen river and thunders into the sea. "It's alive, it's absolutely alive," says a South African visitor who recently traversed half the earth with her fiancé to be married on a small ship, Cruise West's Spirit of Endeavour, near the foot of South Sawyer Glacier in Alaska's Tracy Arm Fjord. As the captain turns the ship toward the wave raised by the crashing ice and threads a path through the biggest bergs, the smaller bits fizz and pop or play a syncopated thunk-plink-plunk against the hull. Framing the tableau: that ever rumbling, fiercely complaining wall of ice.

"I never expected a glacier to have so much character," the new bride says. "And that color! We flew 32 hours to get here, and this hour has made the trip absolutely worth it."

Every year hundreds of thousands of people visit coastal Alaska to catch a glimpse of a glacier's might. Some take helicopter or floatplane tours over the ice fields; others strap on steel-studded shoes to follow experienced hikers onto stable regions of the glacier itself. But the best views of a calving tidewater glacier can be had from a ringside seat on a cruise ship. As the ice crashes down, harbor seals lounge on tufted rafts of ice that bob and swirl next to the ship. Nearby, families of humpback whales surface in elegant formation, then dive to the bottom as one, offering slow-motion fluke salutes.

Repeat visitors to Alaska have begun to notice something else: An estimated 95 percent of the state's glaciers, like most around the world, are receding. Where a few decades ago there were blankets of ice, now hundreds of feet or even miles of bare rock are exposed.

In some places the shrinkage is particularly striking, even to first timers. The Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, which opened in 1963 close to Juneau's backyard glacier, is now a mile or more from its frozen face. Inside the center, a picture window offers views of Mendenhall in the distance, and films and museum exhibits compare the decline to deficit spending by a frequent shopper. When the snow laid down throughout the year is not enough to offset the amount of ice lost to calving and melting, a glacier dwindles and, in this case, recedes.

Meanwhile, in the lower 48, smaller rivers of ice 7,000 years in the making are vanishing as well. "You mean Glacierless National Park?" says Ed DesRosier, the owner of a northwestern Montana tour company, when asked about his region's startling meltdown. A member of the Blackfeet Nation, DesRosier grew up near the park. He and his ancestors have watched the glaciers—monumental forces of nature that have carved out sacred valleys and pyramidal peaks over the course of millennia—decrease in size and in number, from 150 in the mid-19th century to 37 named glaciers in 1968, on down to 27 today.

You can still hike to Sperry and Grinnell glaciers, and you can spot Jackson from the highway. Glacier National Park remains a wilderness wonderland of granite peaks, wildflower meadows, and gushing waterfalls. It is home to grizzlies, bighorn sheep, and snow grouse known as ptarmigan. Glacier will always be worth a visit, even after the ice is gone. Still, the loss is transformative. Already there's evidence of the park's tree line advancing up the mountains and invading the alpine meadows. Fish habitats are also changing as runoff patterns shift in glacier-fed creeks.

Average overall temperatures in the area, particularly at night and in winter, have risen about 2 degrees over the past 50 years. As warming continues, Glacier National Park will likely lose the last of its namesake ice formations in just 25 or 30 years, according to Dan Fagre, a local researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey.

More and more, visitors to Montana, like passengers on ships cruising in Alaska, have the same worried questions:

Are the world's melting glaciers a sign of global warming?
Yes, overall, though the advance and recession of any particular glacier is influenced by regional weather cycles and other factors, too. A tidewater glacier dangling its toes in water is likely to lose acreage faster than one nearby that terminates in a moraine of rock and dirt.

Are humans to blame for the warming?
In part, yes, especially in the last few decades. Data from varied sources suggests that smokestacks, car tailpipes, and burning forests have accelerated the warming trend.

Is it too late to turn down the heat?
No, but climate experts say we're already stuck with some warming; the oceans are great reservoirs of accumulated heat that will continue to shape the climate for years.

Evidence garnered from tree rings, core samples of old ice, and measurement of more current phenomena such as temperature variation and thawed permafrost has finally convinced even skeptics that the earth has indeed been heating up fast—by about a degree over the last century, on average, with some regions more affected than others. Temperatures in Alaska have risen by some 4 degrees over the past 50 years.

The planet experiences predictable swings in heating and cooling across decades and cycles of hundreds or thousands of years. But even taking those cycles into account, the rate of warming documented in the last 100 years, and particularly in the last 20, goes beyond normal variation. Climate modelers predict that if we stay on this road, earth will likely be, on average, 5 to 7 degrees warmer by 2100 than it is now, and perhaps even hotter.

For nonscientists, the most compelling part of Dan Fagre's research in Glacier National Park may be his album of photographs taken by tourists, a graphic record of glaciers melting across a century. Even before famed conservationist and ornithologist George Bird Grinnell proclaimed the northern Rockies the "crown of the continent" and urged Congress to establish the park in the early 1900s, the Great Northern Railway was delivering awestruck Easterners to the region's doorstep. The first thing many of those early visitors wanted to do, long skirts and gabardine trousers notwithstanding, was to hike to, across, and into the area's mammoth ice formations, cameras in hand.

By comparing the photographs those early hikers took with recent pictures taken at the same spots today, Fagre and his colleagues now have an amazingly rich record of climate change throughout the park. The transformation the images reveal is astounding: Sperry, Grinnell, Jackson, and other glaciers, now well on their way to becoming slushy snowfields and lakes, were once powerful symbols of might, as stirring as any Alaskan wall of ice today. In some cases, only the deeply ridged cliffs and hanging valleys are left, a carved legacy of the ancient ice.

The best science suggests that though there may be calving tidewater glaciers in Alaska to visit for some time, it is already too late for even the heaviest of snow seasons to save Glacier National Park's icy monuments. Our grandchildren's children, it seems, will have to be content to marvel at photographs and stories about times gone by and the way things once were in the grand cathedrals of ice.

Photography by Tom Bean

This article was first published in September 2006. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.