It’s always curious to hear protests from the Lower 48 insisting that climate change is a hoax, especially when one lives down the road from glaciers that aren’t—shall we say—what they used to be.
I remember when I first moved to Alaska, back in 1991. One of my first “touristy” destinations was Portage Glacier. It’s just a quick drive down the Seward Highway from Anchorage. You could take a quick boat ride up to the face of the glacier, but I pulled up to the Begich-Boggs Visitors’ Center, got out of the car, and spent my time instead wandering the shore of Portage Lake communing with the icebergs. Imagine walking through a towering garden of free-form ice sculptures. Curved, undulating shapes, some with holes all the way through, some looking like animals, or human forms, weighing who knows how many hundreds or thousands of pounds, with most of them taller than the top of your head. It was astounding. You couldn’t have asked for more from a permanent installation by a highly skilled artist, and yet here it was, all made by nature and washed ashore at random, deposited into the frigid water by the towering blue glacier you could see on the other side of the lake. And the materials for this incredible art were forged long before this country existed. I was entranced – like a kid in a magical forest.
Two years later you could no longer see Portage Glacier from the shore. It had receded around the bend where it had formerly snaked into view. It was shocking. It would never be back. I wondered if I’d taken enough pictures of it.
As the years went by, there were fewer and fewer icebergs on the beach. Now, you might find one or two small pieces. Or not.
Now, when visitors come, you have to take that boat ride to see the glacier. And while first time glacier viewers are thrilled with the majesty and rarity of this incredible river of ice (as they should be), it is hard not to think back to what it once was, and to mourn for the loss of something that will never be again in my lifetime, or my children’s lifetime, or the lifetime of anyone I’ll ever know.
It’s not a political opinion.
And it’s not just Portage. Elsewhere around the state, Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier is receding at a rate of 300 to 600 feet per year—a disappearing act so drastic that it caught the attention of the New York Times a couple of years ago.
Chasing Ice is a new, incredible documentary film featuring National Geographic photographer James Balog. A former climate change skeptic, Balog was on assignment in the Arctic in 2005 and saw with his own eyes—just as those of us near Portage can—exactly how fast the glaciers of our polar regions are disappearing.
“This is the memory of the landscape. That landscape is gone. It may never be seen again in the history of civilization.” —James Balog
Along with issuing warnings like that one, Balog is now on a mission to document the melting glaciers as evidence in the climate change debate. Here’s the trailer for Chasing Ice.