Tag Archives: ice

The Mendenhall Glacier Blues

The Blue Ice Caves

Every color has a pure form that boggles the mind and goes beyond the eyes ability to see and it and the brain’s ability to interpret it. I’m talking about hues of color that make your neurons tingle as they try to absorb its hues. You may think of the dark red of a fine ruby or the electric-green of a buggy-eyed tree frog in a rain forest. These pure colors attract us like flies to honey and are a primary reason that thousands of visitors take the risk of stepping into the Mendenhall Glacier to see its sculpted walls of cerulean blue ice. The ice of the cave walls and ceiling is shaped into waves by the wind and water. Immense pressure from hundreds of feet of ice above compress the ice into perfect clarity giving a view to the conditions within.Glaciers carry the earth in their walls and as they melt create new land. As I stepped into Mendenhall Glacier, the world trapped within was immediately evident. Far into the ice, large boulders and sheets of sediment could be seen within. The rocks were distorted by the curves of the ice face. At the base of the cave’s walls, ice flowed over rocks that were half in and half out of their century-old entrapment. The whole floor of the glacier was made from the boulders that melted from glacier. These boulders, it seems, are released at a rapid rate, as the glacier was much different than my last visit in 2015

Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice

Change at Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier is receding up to 150 feet per year. The rapid rate of change was in full display.  I was astounded to see former site of the ice caves that I visited in 2015 was ice free. In its place, was a valley of rocks and a frozen river. Rock walls extended up to the ice face high above us. Although I cannot be sure how far the ice receded, it may have receded as much as 300 feet. This is not the first time I have seen such change in an Alaskan glacier – I was reminded of the demise of the ices caves of Castner Glacier over the course of a couple years.  Glacial change can happen at a rapid pace! The images below capture the glacier as it is now – I look forward to documenting its inevitable change in the future.

Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice Mendehall Galicer, Juneau, Ice Caves, Blue Ice

A Superior Coast of Stone and Ice

I do not know why the stark beauty of the Lake Superior coast surprised me so much; before, I had lived on its shores four years. In front of me, the grey sky mirrored the pale ice of the shoreline, and as I walked to the edge of Gitchigumi’s  ice encased coast at Gooseberry State Park I was captivated. Short waves in the small cove which curled out in front of me lapped at the shoreline and imperceptibly built up icicles that hung from ice ledges. The icicles were shaped like alligator teeth and seemed to dangle from the frozen mouth of a gigantic beast. Every rock was encased in a sheet of ice built  up one splash of water at a time. A careful cross-section of ice from on top of the rock would reveal that stone was at the core of an arctic onion.

The ice was inspiring to look at from a macro and micro scale. By getting close and touching my nose to the ice, I observed some the miniscule details contributing to the grand-scale beauty.  On the rocks, a result of the layers of water was gray-and-white banded textures mimicking the agates Lake Superior is so famous for. They were polished to perfection.  Colorful yellow lichens, tufted grasses, and rich green mosses were preserved on the rocks behind clear windows of curved ice. The magnifying effect of the curve threw pieces of the lichen out of proportion, and the the splashes of bright color they provided were in stark contrast to the granite. As I pressed my face close and looked,  it was impossible to guess how some of the textures had formed. In some instances, it seemed that some of the small pebbles trapped in the ice had received just enough sun to melt and separate themselves. The small void they left above their surface was filled with alternating grains and patterns. Reflecting on it now, everything looks a bit different when you observe the essence of a landscape.

One of the greatest joys of the afternoon was when the sun dissolved through the flat gray skies as a radiant sunset. The grey ice ledges and icicles no longer blended into the background colors of the horizon but instead reflected and bounced the many colors of the  sky. The Lake Superior coast was transformed. Translucent icicles absorbed and emitted the sunset’s light. Rays of sun illuminated the rock islands encased in ice.  Blue skies and orange clouds floated overhead and were pushed by the wind. Throughout it all I counted my blessings and documented its beauty. As the sun finally set I returned to my car feeling like I had been at just the right place, at just the right time.

Sunset on the Iice
The sunset bounces off the curved icy bubbles on the shoreline.
Sunset Emitted
These small icicles absorb and seem to emit the colors of the sunset behind them.
Flat Waters?
You may have noticed throughout the post that the water of Lake Superior was flat. That is due to a the long exposures that I used to emphasize the beauty of the ice. This image does not use a long exposure and shows a small wave breaking over the rocks.

 

What the Wind Erased

A landscape transformed by fog and cold

Crystallized grasses and bejeweled trees

Dazzling and glinting in the sunrise

The slightest physical touch or force of nature

Will fracture the delicate crystals 

So you hold your breath and get as close as possible

Hoar frost Grass Frond
Hoar frost hangs heavy on some grass.

Then a death knell begins as a distant puff of wind

Slowly it grows, stripping the trees and grasses

Casting the flakes like diamonds into the breeze

A blink of the eye and the trees are naked and plain

Anyone driving by would never know what the wind erased. 

Hoar Frost floats in a puff of wind.
Fractured Hoar Frost crystals float in a puff of wind.

 

When I stepped outside today the world was transformed. The skies were blue, the sun was white, and hoar frost bejeweled the world. I was astounded by the fragility of the phenomenon as mother nature used the wind to erase her artwork in only a few minutes.

Hoar Frost
Huge flakes of hoar frost from an old aster.
Frost on crystals
Ice crystals extend out from a grass frond.
Prairie Hoar Frost
Prairie Hoar Frost
Hoar Frost in the Field.
The trees above my house are illuminated by the rising sun.

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Watching a Glacier Die

Drop a few ice cubes in your drink before you start reading this, and consider the question : how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Now, while you are thinking about that illusive answer, consider how many days it takes to melt a glacier. Just how fast does it happen? My several trips to Castner Glacier over the last 15 months provide interesting evidence into this impossible to answer question. Let’s take a look!

April 2014

When I first visited Castner Glacier in April 2014 a monstrous, multi-chambered ice cave shook me to my core. The ice cathedral hung over my head an estimated 80 feet above. The walls and ceilings of it were composed of blue, transluscent layers of ice and closer inspection of the walls showed that the clarity of the ice provided a window deep into the glacier of the sediment suspended in it. A chimney was cut into its ceiling allowing light to illuminate the icy floor of the glacier.  It was awe inspiring!

Castner Glacier Face April 2014
This was the glacial face (moraine) as I found it during my April 2014 visit. Clear, blue ice was found in the face, and particularly in the caves.
Castner Ice Cave Cathedral
Once you walked through the ice caves, this cathedral was found on the other side. I guess, based on my height in this picture compared to the ceilings, that the cave was 80 feet tall!
Castner Glacier Chimney
This chimney was found in the ceiling perhaps 20-30 feet above the glacier floor in April 2014. It was very narrow at the top, but the bottom is much wider than this picture would suggest. The icicles at its base suggest that some melting was occurring in it.

This video was taken in April 2014 during a walkthrough of the ice cave and captures the scope of it. Instability of parts of the video was due to the slippery ice floor!

August 2014

The next time I visited the rainiest summer recorded in Fairbanks was coming to a close, and the rain had reshaped the ice in unimaginable ways. Water ran down the glacier in small rivulets and opened the chimney to a yawning mouth. It degraded the ceiling so extremely, that large chunks of the cavern had crashed down. If you stood close to the mouth of the cave many rocks fell dangerously from the ceiling as they melted from their icy tomb of thousands of years. The rapid melt had removed the beautiful transparency from the ice. It was now silty and gray.

Castner Glacier Collapse
When we returned in August 2014 we found the result of the constant rain over the summer. The chimney had melted so rapidly that the roof of the ice cave had collapsed.
Castner Glacier Ice Cave Backside
This image shows the degradation of the chimneys from the top and back of the glacier. Although I didn’t take an April 2014 photo for comparison, this image is especially revealing when compared to June 2015 (upcoming images)
Castner Ice Cave Scale
My parents stand next to the ice cave’s face for perspective. The large blocks that stood in front in April were now gone, and the top of the cave is much, much thinner than just three months earlier. 
Castner Ice Cave Front 2015
This image from the front of the caves shows a large section of ice which caved off the front. The scale and setting of this picture is similar to the April 2014 image of me standing in front of the broad ice cave.

The rapid melting that we witnessed inspired me to create a different type of video for Castner. This video documents the fall (August) stage of plant life around the glacier, and then documents the progression of drops of water from the glacier which eventually build into the silty and fast-flowing Castner Creek.

June 2015

When I visited the Castner Ice Cave in June 2015, it was just a shadow of its former self. Only a small arch of ice remained of the once huge cave. Castner Creek ran through the remnant of the ice cave, where previously it had run to the side. In just fifteen months, unquantifiable amounts of ice from the glacier had transformed into water, carrying with it many tons of silt to the broader river valley that Castner Creek flowed into. The glacier was rapidly changing, dying.

Castner Ice Cave Back June 2015
This image of the Castner Ice Cave was shot in June 2015 from the back. The thin, collapsed chunk of ice in the foreground is all that remains of most of the ceiling of the cave.

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Castner Ice Cave Back Panorama
This image of the back of the Castner Ice Cave can be compared to the images taken in August 2014 and April 2014. The trailing edges of the large ice cathedral that I stood in can be seen in the back right. The arch of the glacier is thin, and a new chimney shows that it continues to degrade.
Castner Glacier Backside Panorama
The trailing edge of the ceiling on the right is all that is left of the ice cathedral from April 2014. Large piles of debris and silt have been deposited, and the floor where the cathedral was is much higher now.

The answer is two hundred fifty-two. At least that is what students at Purdue concluded to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But why does it matter that Alaska’s Castner Glacier and the state’s other glaciers are melting so rapidly? Alaska Dispatch News recently reported on a new study demonstrating that Alaskan Glaciers are losing 75 billion tons (75 gigatons) of ice each year, and that 94% of that loss is occurring on inland glaciers like Castner. This means that Alaskan glaciers will continue to contribute a significant amount to global sea level rise, especially in light of a warming climate. They end the article with a quote by study co-author O’Neel. “This is probably going to be a pretty tough year for a lot of the glaciers”, he stated. It appears he is right, and Castner’s included.

Fort Yukon, Alaska : Celebrating Spring!

Spring is in the air! In Fairbanks the trees are leafing out and the days are long and warm. Even now there are only several hours each day that are dark. 150 miles north of here, Fort Yukon is just starting to wake up for the season. I got to spend some time up there (it was much different than the last time I was here) and I made it a point find some of the things which represent spring. All around birds, plants, and humans are celebrating the season.

As an avid birder I am interested  in the new migrants which arrive in the spring. The Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge was set up to harbor waterfowl; they flock there by the 10’s of thousands. The small ponds dotting the landscape are ideal for brooding and raising chicks. My waterfowl list for the trip included a dozen species.  Passerines like yellow-rumped warblers and dark-eyed juncos were abundant. These two  species (e.g. yellow-rumps and juncos) are some of the first to show up for spring, and are a great indicator the season is here for good!

A canvasback salutes the sun and stretches its wings near Fort Yukon
A canvasback salutes the sun and stretches its wings near Fort Yukon
A pintail duck takes flight around Fort Yukon. AK
A pintail duck takes flight around Fort Yukon. AK
A yellow rumped warbler around Fort Yukon, AK
A yellow rumped warbler around Fort Yukon, AK
Dark-eyed Junco around Fort Yukon, AK
Dark-eyed Junco around Fort Yukon, AK

Waterfowl are pursued by Subsistence Hunters as they migrate north. Each spring it provides a new source of meat (in a region that depends on 85% of its meat from the wild) to replenish stores until the salmon arrive in July. In particular white-fronted geese, canada geese, and snow geese are shot. When I was touring around the village I found a place where the birds were plucked. An unusual (for the region) strong north wind blew the features onto the trees and ground. It looked like a massive and violent pillow fight had been staged there. I got to share in the bounty of goose soup, which was delicious!

A strong north wind blew up these goose feathers from the beach where they were plucked. During the spring migration, Subsistence users taken many types of waterfowl.
A strong north wind blew up these goose feathers from the beach where they were plucked. During the spring migration, Subsistence users taken many types of waterfowl.
The results of subsistence users. In the spring time geese are actively hunted, I got to share in the bounty with some delicious goose soup!
The results of subsistence users. In the spring time geese are actively hunted, I got to share in the bounty with some delicious goose soup!

The breakup for the Yukon River is a celebrated event by all who live on it and depend on it. River travel is fast, and gives residents access to some resources which have been unavailable since the previous fall. Although the Yukon has been clear for over a week large chunks of ice on the banks demonstrate the power it took to push them there and are a testament to how thick/resilient the ice can be! Over 8 feet of ice in some regions.

The Yukon River broke up in early May, but huge slabs of ice still cover the shore making boat access difficult in some areas.
The Yukon River broke up in early May, but huge slabs of ice still cover the shore making boat access difficult in some areas.
The power of the Yukon River pushed these ice chunks onto shore where they are still slowly melting away and feeding the river.
The power of the Yukon River pushed these ice chunks onto shore where they are still slowly melting away and feeding the river.

The leaves have not appeared on the trees yet, but spring pasque flowers, and willows have started to bloom. The bright yellow stems of the willows caught my eyes and were at stark contrast with the surrounding gray bark of the aspens. Especially eye catching was the contrast of the yellow stems and the blue sky! The base of the willows were dirty and marred where river water had washed over them just a few days earlier.

These yellow willows are a beautiful contrast against that deep blue sky!
These yellow willows are a beautiful contrast against that deep blue sky!

Yellow Willows

A newly bloomed pasque flower in the sunlight in Fort Yukon, AK
A newly bloomed pasque flower in the sunlight in Fort Yukon, AK
Pasque Flowers are the first flower to bloom in Fort Yukon, AK. Here they have just emerged on 05/15/14
Pasque Flowers are the first flower to bloom in Fort Yukon, AK. Here they have just emerged on 05/15/14

Spring is certainly in the air in Fort Yukon. Overall, it’s one of the ‘last’ springs to arrive in North America. I leave you with a still, spring sunset in one of the river braids of the Yukon. I hope you are having a great spring!

The sunset on a beautiful evening in Fort Yukon. It will not be long before the sun doesn't set at all!
The sunset on a beautiful evening in Fort Yukon. It will not be long before the sun doesn’t set at all!