Making my way up to Juneau, Alaska, I wanted to experience a glacier up close and personal.  To see a glacier is to understand a great deal about why glaciers are such a big deal.  I booked a day on a glacier including hiking, exploring, and even climbing a wall (thank goodness for ice axes and crampons).

So what exactly is a glacier?  From the US Geological Survey:  “Glaciers form where more snow falls than melts over a period of years, compacts into ice, and becomes thick enough to begin to move.”  Glaciers flow.  They are alive.

The flow pattern of the glacial river is notable in this picture I took from the helicopter

Glaciers rely on fresh snow yearly to keep them alive and growing.  Currently most glaciers worldwide are shrinking.

Mendenhall Glacier

We visited Mendenhall Glacier, part of the Juneau Icefield, the fifth largest ice field in the Western Hemisphere.  Views of the ice field from our helicopter are below.


Picture how much fresh water is in this huge snow pack

Mendenhall Glacier is about 13 miles (21 Km) long and the ice is about 2,200 feet (671 m) deep at its midpoint and maybe 5000 feet (1524 m) deep at the top.

Coming in to land on the glacier.  Notice the people and the supply tent.  It gives a sense of size.
Group awaiting return flight.  Don’t fall in a crevice.

Pretty big, but not nearly as big as it used to be.  From Juneau Empire:  “Visitors’ center now occupy sites that were covered by 500 to 1,000 feet of ice merely 100 to 200 years ago.”

The blue glacial ice has become so compressed (dense) that every color of the spectrum is absorbed except blue.  It is beautiful.
Cool formations when hiking around.

Why are glaciers important?

“Glacier ice is the largest reservoir of fresh water on the planet, storing an estimated 75 percent of the world’s supply.”  As they melt, all that fresh water mixes with ocean water – which means it is no longer fresh water.

Glaciers also host their own ecosystems.  Glaciers shrinking significantly means even more species of animals and plants disappear forever.  Finally, when glaciers shrink, the earth retains even more heat accelerating global warming.

usda glacier

From the US Forest Service Brochure. (I guess Mr Trump missed this brochure in his purge of science and facts).

How did we get atop the glacier?

northstar glacier tours

Helicopter! I had never flown in one before and what a thrill it was.  The pilot looked to be about 12 years old (OK so I exaggerate).  He did a great job of navigating through the peaks and not freaking any of the other 5 of us out too much.

Helicopter flying through a gap.  Lots of cameras out.

Reflections on my visit

From National Geographic: “Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening during the span of a human lifetime.”  I found another quote that rang true:  “Glaciers are sentinels of climate change. They are the most visible evidence of global warming today.”

To stand atop a very-much-alive glacier and try to comprehend its massive size is to recognize how significant it will be as glaciers throughout the world melt away to nothing.  I do recognize that the hypocrisy of my own blog shines through – my affection for air travel.  I rationalize it with my extreme distaste (and minimal frequency) for being in an automobile.  That’s not a great rationalization.

If you get a chance, go visit a glacier.  It is worth the education and experience.