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.
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.
The mountains rise above Mendenhall Glacier.
The expansive Mendenhall Glacier covers Mendenhall Lake.
A fissure in the glacier reveals a brilliant blue.
Waves of ice carved into the ceiling and walls of Mendenhall Glacier.
A ridge of ice shaped by wind and rain.
A large boulder released from the ice and lit the mouth of the cave.
A large boulder released from the ice and lit the mouth of the cave.
Sediment trapped in the ice and warped by its curves.
A rock escapes the ice in the ceiling of the ice caves.
A close-up of the icy curves in Mendenhall Glacier.
A tunnel of ice leading to another chamber of the ice cave.
Can you find the person in this image??! The ice of Mendenhall glacier dwarfs them in the lower left corner.
Shadows of the sunrise flow over Mendenhall Glacier’s face.
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.
So you hold your breath and get as close as possible
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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 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.
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!