Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Glacial Recession -- Part III

The thermometer back at the campground says 95 degrees, but the temperature near the edge of the glacier is at least twenty degrees cooler. In front of me is a massive, grinding river of ice streaked with deep crevasses and powerful enough to chew up mountains.

I’m a little apprehensive about stepping onto this beast, but our workshop instructor, Jeff, is exuberant. He’s already testing the strength of the glacier with his ice axe, listening for hollow, weak ice that won’t support our weight. “Stay to the left of that crevasse,” he advises as he builds a cairn, or pile of rocks, to mark our way. “Oh, and avoid that gray ice over there,” he adds as he moves ahead. Uh, okay. I follow his steps exactly.

Jeff leads us a short way onto the glacier. It’s not safe to go any farther, he says, as the tips of the crevasses extend only a few feet beyond where we’re standing. I look down. The ice beneath my feet seems almost iridescent. Rocks of varying sizes are liberally strewn on and embedded in the ice, accounting for its slightly dirty appearance from afar.

I stay rooted to my spot. Even with the cairns, I’d have an incredibly difficult time finding my way back across the ice safely. Two or three years ago, a day hiker ventured alone onto the glacier while his friends waited, and fell 35 feet into a crevasse. After much grueling work, the Park Service managed to extricate him from the crevasse, but he died shortly afterward.

Jeff talks about glacial formations and characteristics. He points out a moulin, which is a vertical shaft that runs down into the glacier. He reminds us of the discussion in An Inconvenient Truth about lakes forming beneath glaciers, and tells us that moulins like this facilitate the flow of water beneath the ice sheet.

This place is not quiet; different noises punctuate Jeff’s speech. You can hear the loud rush of water somewhere below, and once or twice a thunderous sound interrupted our discussion. Cracking ice.

Even though this glacier is a fraction of the size it was 150 years ago, it still seems just massive. I try to imagine this entire cirque covered in glacial ice, but it seems incomprehensible. But later on, when Jeff shows us how much of the glacier has disappeared just since last summer, the ice appears a good deal smaller.

My son may be lucky enough to see the park’s glaciers before they disappear entirely, but it’s unlikely his children will. The drop dead date for these glaciers is 2030; after that, like the snows of Kilimanjaro, they will be gone.

Part IV, coming soon: Wherein a tragic hiking boot blowout requires me to place my feet, for extended periods of time, into water that only a short time before had been ice.


kris said...

Hi - thanks for your comment. I hope you've reached your friend and he/she is alright. I'll be back later to read your post - my head is a little blurry right now.

Trailhead said...

I can imagine. What you posted about your son nearly curled my hair. I hope all turns out well for everyone you know and love.

(For those of you reading this, Kris lives in Minneapolis, where the bridge collapsed today.)

Kristy said...

I wish I could remember the name of the glacier, but it lies just off the highway between Jasper and Calgary, Alberta. They have "snow coaches" to drive you out onto the ice--directly onto the glacier. You can leave the coach and do a bit of a walk about if you're feeling daring. There's also a hotel on the other side of the road that's designed to freeze solid during the winter months. They've built expansion seams into the buildng at various junctures so that the structure won't crack about in the process of freezing and thawing. Pretty amazing stuff, that.