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November 22, 2017

Chasing Ice

With one of my Midwestern friends, former Madison, Wisconsin Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, at Portage Glacier.

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.

Mendenhall Glacier, outside Juneau, has receded 1.75 miles since 1958.

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.

Holgate Glacier, Resurrection Bay

Holgate ice. The blue reflection in the water is from the glacier.

A flood of glacial meltwater pours from underneath Holgate Glacier.

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.



24 Responses to “Chasing Ice”
  1. Dave Cieslewicz says:

    Another great piece of writing, Jeanne. But for cryin’ out loud do you have to mess up part of a beautiful picture of an ever receding glacier with that goof from Wisconsin?

  2. Terry says:

    “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.”

    To be fair, there are some prominent Alaskans who make the same protests.

  3. benlomond2 says:

    We visited Glacier Bay last year… and it was pretty exciting watching big chunks fall in the water with loud rumbles…and sobering when you viewed the map of where the glaciers USED to be , and how far up the bay they had receded…..
    YO .. TCW….!! “i before e , except after c “…glacier or glaceir ?? 🙂

  4. blue_in_AK says:

    I first saw Portage Glacier in 1972. It really is shocking how much it has receded in the past 40 years.

  5. Zyxomma says:

    The boyfriend and I went to Glacier National Park in 2005, because he knew I really wanted to see glaciers before they all disappeared. The park had plenty of info and photographs showing the receding of the glaciers. The glaciers were thrilling. Thanks for sharing the photos.

  6. Greg Marquez says:

    Just curious. But haven’t the glaciers been shrinking for thousands of years. As I understand it the glaciers used to reach down into the northern part of the Continental U.S. How can you tell if this is something different from that shrinking?

    • Alaska Pi says:
      There have been around 16 advance/retreat modes for the Juneau Icefileds in the last 300 years. What is happening now is unprecedented for the history of the Icefield though- very fast, very, very fast melt.
      Is happening in many, many places.
      Sorta like the sea ice issues on the northern outer coast. Loss of sea ice has accelerated.
      Permafrost defrosting – all of it… the glaciers are simply big enough and melting so fast it is very visible.

  7. mike from iowa says:

    Irrefudiated proof of global warming is provided by the caliber of rwnj running for office. Their noggins are baked to a crisp. Look and listen to them closely and you will see it ain’t only their hairlines that have receded.

  8. slipstream says:

    slipstream hisownself once rowed the blue raft out onto Portage Lake and circled one of the icebergs.

    (shhh!! don’t tell the Forest Service!!)

    You’re right, the lake has a lot fewer icebergs recently.

    • AKblue says:

      You were lucky that berg didn’t turn over while you circled it!
      I remember the warnings about the giant icebergs turning over even in the winter when the lake was frozen and people skied on it. Now you can ski 3 miles across the lake without seeing any ice bergs.

  9. Bear Woman says:

    Mendenhall Glacier is now receding 300-600 feet per year, not 30-60. There have been jokulhaups the last 2 years — sudden outpourings of blocked up glacial melt — which had never occurred previously. Now they are planning on them annually.

    Yes, the glaciers of Alaska are melting. The few that are surging forward are doing so because they have water flowing under their icefields which initially hastens their forward motion.

    If you want to see a glacier, better come to Alaska in the next 5 years, after that, all bets are off if there will be any glaciers to view or touch.

    • GoI3ig says:

      Thanks for the clarification. I was looking at pictures I took of Mendenall in 2001, and comparing whem with some I shot in 2011. Quite a difference!

    • Alaska Pi says:

      It has been something to watch the glacier shrink /retreat , especially over the last few years, but somehow year in, year out I had lost track of how very far it has retreated.
      Recently. I came across some Mendenhall Glacier pics I took in “79 or “80 (in the pics, son is a certain size of small in a certain jacket which marks the timeframe since I didn’t pencil dates on them, dang )
      Holy moley, has it shrunk!?!

    • tigerwine says:

      Hi Bear Woman! It must be so, so sad to see those beautiful glaciers disappear so quickly. Enjoy them while you can..

    • Jeanne Devon says:

      Thanks, Bear Woman! It’s corrected. I wish I’d been right though… the actual number is so much worse. 🙁

  10. Ripley In CT says:

    This is shocking. Climate warming is no more evident than a receding glacier. It’s a GLACIER, present for millions of years. Responsible for the sculpting of the planet. We have ginormous boulders here, deposited in the middle of nowhere and other areas of earth and rock carved by glaciers that went through eons ago. I love historical geology.

    While I do believe there is a natural ebb and flow of energy and climate change over eons of time, I absolutely believe that human desecration of the earth’s resources and combustion of fossil fuels has contributed to the extreme revving of that system’s speed. We are seeing changes that likely took hundreds, if not thousands of years, happen in 5-10 years. This is not good. Things will be very different here in 100 years.

  11. AKMagpie says:

    When I first came to Alaska in 1959, Portage glacier was just a step from the little border road in front of what is now Portage Lake. There was no Visitor Center then, and we chopped off a few pieces of glacier ice for the cooler in the car. Gol3ig and I must have similar memories.

    Going further down to the end of the memory road (Homer) we got bags of King crab legs for a dollar from the cannery that was on the spit then. So yummy! Now it looks like Anchorage is going to turn into the next rain forest. Wonder if we will have another 15 foot of snow winter at my house. Getting time for the studded tires.

    • GoI3ig says:

      Correct you are. I remember picking up big bags of shrimp down there at the cannery on the spit. You could also fish for your own king crab around the pier. Those were the days.

  12. mike from iowa says:

    Excellent article and magnificent per usual. Great as far as you went. I guess I’m getting spoiled and hanker to see a stick figure glacier since I will probably never live to see a rill one.

  13. HoboJohn says:

    I want to see it now!

  14. GoI3ig says:

    Imagine what it’s like for those of us who have been around these parts for decades. Portage Glacier used to be just a stones throw from the visitor center. (before it was built)

  15. E of Anc P says:

    We lived in Juneau when the Mendenhall Glacier birthed into the lake making giant tidal waves. It shocked me years later to see it around the bend from the visitor’s center. We had a home next to the Mendenhall River and had to get flood insurance as at that time the glacier could have advanced. Unfortunately, though, it has receded. And, we too, had moved up here from S.E. Alaska when you could see Portage Glacier from the visitor’s center. Nothing better to prove the climate is warming.

    The whole of Alaska’s scenery, etc. is still gorgeous! We do need to take care of our land, wildlife, waters, and marine life. After 40 years the beauty still astounds us.

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