Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Incredible Shrinking Glacier: First-Hand Witness to the Effects of Global Warming (Part Two of My Brief Alaska Getaway)

A couple of weeks ago, I took advantage of savvy airfare watching to make a brief escape from the heat wave gripping northern Virginia with a trip to Alaska.  In Part One of my adventure, I left Anchorage and its near-midnight sun behind for a drive down the incredibly-scenic Seward Highway, where a spot of lunch magically dispersed the dense clouds which had cloaked the Kenai Peninsula since my arrival.  Next stop: Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, to witness first-hand one of the many evidences of global warming.

Exit Glacier Terminus (center)
Exit Glacier is a short drive north from Seward and is the only part of Kenai Fjords accessible by car.  It's also quite nearly a "drive-up" glacier, with an observation point along the access road (pictured, above) and another only a brief half mile hike (handicap accessible, too) from the parking and visitor's center, with the edge of the glacier itself only a half mile beyond that.  Unlike many national park areas and most Alaska state parks, Kenai Fjords National Park is free-of-charge to visitors.  Both self-led and ranger-guided walks are available; the latter offer the benefit of a knowledgeable narrator; I followed behind one such group (until I could get to a wide enough area of the trail to pass by) and learned a good deal about the specific flora of the area and the roles they play in the ever-changing landscape along the glacier's terminus.

This marked my first trip to Alaska and to its glaciers, so I don't have a personal point of comparison, but others who have been there before expressed shock and dismay when they saw my July, 2010, photos of Exit Glacier.  Signs along the trail and at the glacier's terminus (such as this chart through 1996) clearly show the glacier's retreat, some of which is certainly natural--Exit Glacier has been receding for two centuries, after all.  Yet there's a noticeable and marked difference even in the past decade, as Beth's godmother Joy pointed out when looking over my photos and as I can tell looking back at photos others have taken in the recent past.  It's hard to imagine that at one point in fairly recent history the glacier not only extended across the plain visible to the bottom of the photo above, but that it reached well down the road toward Seward--yet simple, stark numbers mark the years and tell the sad tale of the glacier's retreat from those signposted spots.

Glacial Outwash Plain
Despite the title of this blog post, I'm not going to spend it entirely proselytizing about global warming; the evidence and science speak quite well for themselves.  But I will say that seeing a concrete example like the retreat of Exit Glacier up close and in person should chisel a crack or two in even the stoniest denier's hearts.

The hike from the parking lot forks in a couple of places but is well-signed.  I suggest the hanging a left (follow the signs for "Glacier View"), as this path follows the streams feeding the Resurrection River and overlooks the glacial outwash plain, offering some great scenery.  The waters of the Resurrection are a chalky grey, laden with "rock flour" which the glacier has scoured away with its eons of passage across the land.  From just beyond the Glacier View, you can descend down to the water and outwash plain itself.  As the flow over the outwash plain changes significantly even over the course of a year where the waters and deposits of silt meander and shift, it may not be possible to cross all the way to the "toe of the glacier"--lacking waders or at least some good waterproof boots, I couldn't during my visit.  If you do hike to the toe, be wary of overhanging ice and keep in mind that it is melting and breaking away in sometimes-ponderous chunks!

Stop and take some photos before you head back for the main trail; with a tripod (you did bring one, right?) you could even put together a nice panoramic view encompassing the breadth of the river-feeding streams and several peaks of the Kenai Mountains as backdrops--and depending on the time of day and season, even put together a 360-degree view encompassing the toe of the glacier, too.

One strong suggestion bordering on a plea: if you're a smoker, please don't light up on the trail!  It completely ruins the point of being out in all this untouched splendor to pollute the air around you and litter the ground with your ashes and butts.  Can't you wait until you get back to your car?  There's nothing worse than taking in a deep breath of all that clear arctic air and inhaling a lungful of secondhand smoke.  Hey: enjoy nature and smoke later, please!

Once you're ready, there are at least a couple of upstream trailheads well-marked by signs which you can use to rejoin the hike to the edge of the glacier itself--and for those with a bit more time, a longer trail which runs to the Harding Ice Field from which Exit Glacier springs.  The trail passes through deciduous forest on its way back up from the outwash plain, and during summertime many different wildflowers will be in bloom, from the low, ground-hugging cousin of our flowering dogwoods (Bunchberry, C. canadensis) to brilliant purple Fireweed.  I can only imagine the colors in the brief Alaskan autumn.

It's neither a long nor a difficult hike up from the stream bed and toe of the glacier: after less than half a mile and a bit of a climb, the trail emerges into the open again atop rock striated by the past progress of the glacier over it, a reminder of time on a geological scale where the force of ice-carried stone grinds down and marks deeply the very earth beneath it.

From the Edge of the Glacier viewing point, ropes block off direct access to the glacier itself for safety reasons, and given it's slushy consistency and the pressures of constant melt this close to its terminus, it's easy to understand why.  Take the Harding Ice Field day-hike if you want to walk upon the glacier itself.

Kettle Pond and Glacial Striations
Exit Glacier during the summer influx isn't the best place to seek out solitude; chances are the parking lot will be quite full and the trails and best observation points similarly shared by fellow hikers and nature enthusiasts.  But, personally, I didn't find the company (aside from a few smokers) all that burdensome.  I did stop to wonder for a moment what it would be like to be alone with the glacier, time, and the elements, listening to the dripping of meltwater and imagining the almost-imperceptible movement of those tons upon tons of ice across the ground, scouring and grinding down stone itself, irresistibly plucking up and carrying along rocks sized from mere sand to pebbles all the way through magnificent boulders in size.  And in thinking of that not-silence, I'm glad of the presence of my fellow humans, lest somehow the land itself swallow up such an insignificant speck as one person standing before those titanic forces in the balance.

As I wrap up this part of my trip, I do have to return for a moment to the title and theme of this post.  Exit Glacier has been receding for at least 200 years, so obviously some to much of its loss is due to natural climate change--though global warming is indeed the ultimate cause regardless of whether that warming is natural or anthropogenic.  While we have little control over the natural factors influencing climate, we can curb  our own civilization's contributions.  Our reckless production of greenhouse gases not only undeniably is accelerating the changes which are by and large melting glaciers and ice caps worldwide, but also quickly depleting our only readily-accessible and inexpensive energy sources and the base components of so much of the products we use every day.  Even if we as humankind are completely blameless in Exit Glacier's recession, we should be able to look at its example and see what lies ahead if we don't make some difficult and costly choices now.

Next up: the sunny drive back to Anchorage and a morning hiking in Chugach.

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