Sunday, July 8, 2012

Blue Ice

Thanks to Doug Jones for graciously allowing me to link to his personal photography site. I cite him often as my source, but this is a piece based on my experiences and observations, not a research paper. Any factual errors are my own.

“A man who keeps company with glaciers comes to feel tolerably insignificant by and by.” Mark Twain (A Tramp Abroad)

Mr. Twain, as always, hit the nail on the head. There are moments in our lives when we are confronted with just how small we really are, how our existence is an infinitesimal blip in both space and time. And this is a good thing. We who are glued to our phones, our computers, our televisions need reminding that most of it doesn’t really matter in the great scheme of things.

See this iceberg?

It existed as a hundred million snowflakes before Europeans set foot in North America. Chris Columbus has come and gone along with every American ancestor you have, and this chunk of ice is still here. Now that it’s broken off from the mother ship, otherwise known as calving from the glacier, you’ll outlive it, but it when it finally disappears, it will have existed over 500 years.

Before my cruise to Alaska, glaciers existed only in textbooks and documentaries. Thanks to Al Gore, I was vaguely aware that they were melting kinda fast, and that I should probably be alarmed, but since they existed only in textbooks and documentaries, I was only vaguely alarmed.

The best learning happens not in a classroom, but out in the world. Are you familiar with Plato’s “Image of the Line?” I’ve moved from the first level of knowledge, knowing only shadows and reflections, to the second level where you see the thing itself. I’ve seen a glacier dwarf a ten-story cruise ship, felt the air blowing over it to bite at my face, heard the thunder when a piece breaks off and falls into the ocean, and I’ve seen the bare canyon walls where it has receded. Glaciers are real now.

This is the Sawyer Glacier.

This is the Davidson Glacier.

These pics are more shadows and reflections. They don’t begin to do justice to the thing itself.

One of the smart moves Disney made on their Alaskan cruise was to hire a naturalist to sail with us. Doug Jones is a ranger with the U.S. Forest Service. His most recent post was at the Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest outside of Juneau. He knows Alaska, and he made himself accessible throughout the cruise. After I skipped the Disney character breakfast to go listen to Doug, Victor took to calling him my Boo.

I mean, seriously? Why would I skip this…

…in favor of this?

Oh, I dunno? Maybe because I’m a big ol’ nerd who hasn’t drunk deeply from the Disney Kool-Aid jug? But that’s another blog post.

Doug gave four lectures during our cruise, including one on glaciers. And yes, I attended every one of them. He is wicked smart and brimming over with enthusiasm for his home state. He wants everyone to love and appreciate Alaska the way he does. He is also an amateur photographer, and his pictures are stunning. This link takes you to his photography site. It’s worth the click.

Doug narrated our cruise up Tracy Arm, the fjord which ends at the Sawyer Glacier. The vistas were absolutely spectacular.

I wish the pics could give you some sense of scale. These cliffs rise up over 2000 feet.

The water below the ship is another 2000 feet deep in places. The entire fjord was carved out by glaciers.

As we worked our way up Tracy Arm, icebergs became more prevalent.

Then we began to see these cute boogers on top of them.

We arrived at just the right time to see mama harbor seals and the babies they had just birthed.

Yes. Those smears of red on the ice are from that little guy’s very recent entrance into the world.

The closer we got to the glacier, the more seals we saw. Mostly, they ignored the ship. I guess these mamas felt we were sailing a little too close.

Orcas, or Killer Whales, eat harbor seals, but they won’t swim in close to the glacier where the ice is thick, so the seals get very close to the glacier to give birth. All of those little brown dots are seals.

Eagles like to hang out on the ice as well.

The Sawyer Glacier is a tidewater glacier. That means it flows all the way to the ocean. These glaciers are the ones we most often see in all those documentaries because when they calve, it makes for some cool video. The Sawyer Glacier originates in the Juneau Icefield. An icefield is a massive deposit of glacial ice at the top of a mountain range. Doug compared an icefield to a bowl of ice cream. If you keep adding ice cream, eventually it’s going to overflow and run down the sides. An icefield’s overflow is a glacier.

For reasons I don’t pretend to understand, glacial ice absorbs all the colors in the spectrum except blue. Don’t hold me to this, but I think it has something to do with the compacting of all those snowflakes. Regardless, the blue undertones are incredibly beautiful.

You can tell if an iceberg has recently melted enough that it has rolled over. Once the glacial ice makes contact with the air, it begins to turn white. The blue is always underneath, and so, gives the ice a luminescent quality.

Most of Southeast Alaska’s glaciers are in retreat. Note the bare walls around the Sawyer Glacier. The ice has receded so recently that vegetation hasn’t had a chance to reclaim the land.

I can’t remember the exact statistic Doug gave us, but during the 1980’s the glacier was retreating about 20 feet per year. Last year, it retreated close to a mile.

This lake, on which we are making like Hiawatha, didn’t exist 50 years ago. It was part of the Davidson Glacier.

Our Davidson Glacier guide, Justin (the guy on the back of the canoe), told us there aren’t even fish in it yet. It takes 60 years or so for the fish to naturally make their way into a newly created waterway. The lake feeds a river that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Crazy, right?

Global warming has become a highly politicized issue. Doug stuck to the science. He told us about ice core samples that have been gathered from around the world. Scientists can “see” back in time almost a million years through some of the samples.

“It’s extremely complex, but what the natural record tells us is that we are advancing the rate of melt more than 100 times where it has ever been during this part of the cycle. We can see 10 ice ages thru the 880,000 year old ice core sample. It’s never been this accelerated.”

We can argue until the cows come home about why it’s happening, but one trip to Alaska is all it takes to show you that it is happening. My favorite excursion was the canoeing adventure to the Davidson Glacier, and it blows my mind that my grandmother could not have made the same trip when she was my age because THE LAKE WAS STILL A GLACIER!

I wonder what will be left of the Davidson when my grandchildren are my age. I hope they have a chance to see this.

Glaciers are definitely real to me now, and I find myself moving to Plato’s third level of knowledge, the level in which you move from away from the visible to the intelligible. The “what” and “how” questions become “why” questions. Why do we need glaciers? Why are they retreating so fast? Are we responsible?

And then the fourth level…what does the nature of glaciers tell us about the nature of man?

Thanks for hanging in there if you read this far. My last couple of entries have waxed philosophical. Alaska will do that to you for real. I’m gonna switch gears next time and write “The Road Kill Club.”


  1. Just discovering your past posts. I spent 6 days in Anchorage on business years ago, and the only sightseeing I was able to do was a flight with a friend up the Knik glacier just east of Anchorage. We climbed up the valley to nearly 10,000 feet. My friend told me that we had to watch for the fog on top of the mountain. If it started moving, we had to turn around and race back down. The sights were incredible. The blue waters were the most striking thing to me. We saw a couple of bear, and several crashed airplanes that have never been reached in decades. Then I saw the fog move, changing from a ball to giant tongue uncurling down the ice. We turned an ran. Keep in mind we were going downhill at about 140 miles an hour. When we hit the valley, we turned around to look, and found that the fog had arrived just behind us. The trip made me determined to go back only when I can spend a couple of months, and try to appreciate the scope of it.

  2. Just discovered your comment. Thanks for the great story. You definitely need to return to Alaska. I don't know that I've been anywhere else where no matter which direction I turned, I was left breathless by the natural beauty.