Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

glaciers

Alaska (Part Three)

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation
A valley containing a glacier is partially obscure by a bank of clouds

Morning clouds partially obscure the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:

Tree dotted grassy plain with mountains obscured by smoke

Wildfire smoke obscures the Chugach Mountains en route to Anchorage

After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.

While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.

A deep mountain valley with a braided stream and some clouds

Looking down the valley partially occupied by the Exit Glacier just a few hundred years ago.

The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Looking out over the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Deep fissures in glacial ice

Crevasses in the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.

On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.

Two kayakers approach a large glacier

Kayaking toward the terminus of the Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

A hand holds a small piece of ice that has broken off of a glacier

Tiny iceberg, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!

The fin and head of a black and white whale is visible just above the water line

Orca, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Three black fins just upward from the ocean surface

Orcas, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

A small black and white bird with orange beak and feet

Horned Puffin (from the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, because the photo was better than the wild ones…)


Alaska (Part Two)

Several people stand on the crest of a white and blue mass of glacial ice

Exploring the Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska

The second stop on our Alaska trip of 2019 was Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve. The largest national park in the United States, Wrangell-St. Elias spans more than 13 million acres in the wilderness of southeast Alaska. Our destination was the old mining town of Kennecott, situated deep in the park’s interior between the volcanic Wrangell Mountains and the coastal St. Elias Range.

Due to the tire issues mentioned in my last post, we opted not to take our Subaru down the 60-mile long McCarthy Road, the main access route into the park. In hindsight, we probably would have been fine, as the road was in excellent condition (at least relative to the roads we’d been used to driving in Utah. The similar-in-length Hole in the Rock Road makes the McCarthy Road look like a recently-paved superhighway). Fortunately, we were able to book a last minute van shuttle from Kenny Lake, AK to the end of the McCarthy Road. Regardless of your mode of transportation, you then walk across a footbridge spanning the glacial silt-laden Kennicott River into the town of McCarthy. (The only vehicle access to McCarthy is via a private, and very expensive, bridge a bit further downstream.) Kennecott is another 5 uphill miles by shuttle, bike, or foot:

A red and white building with a sign saying "Kennecott"

Kennecott, Alaska. The 14-story wooden concentration mill is seen in the background.

Strangely, reaching Kennecott would have been much easier in 1919 than it was in 2019. The McCarthy “Road” is actually an old railroad grade originally built in 1909 to bring supplies in and ore out of the famous Kennecott Copper Mines. From 1911 through the late 1930s, the Kennecott mines shipped millions of tons of copper ore to Cordova on the Alaska coast via the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The town had state of the art amenities at the time, including one of the best hospitals in the territory as well as the first X-ray machine in Alaska. While the mines closed in 1938, Kennecott Copper remains one of the larger copper-producing companies in the world, perhaps best known for the massive Bingham Canyon Mine just outside of Salt Lake City.

Following the closure of the mines, Kennecott lay mostly deserted for decades before beginning to draw tourists in the 1980s. Much of the land and buildings within the town were acquired by the National Park Service in 1998 and added to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. Restoration and stabilization of historic buildings in Kennecott is ongoing. Today, you can actually explore many of these buildings, including the town power plant (photo below) and the massive concentration mill (photo above), a 14-story wooden structure where copper ore was crushed and then mechanically and chemically concentrated into the high grade ore that was eventually shipped out via the railroad.

The interior of the Kennecott Power Plant, with massive boilers used to produce electricity and steam heat for the mines and town residents.

History aside, the natural landscape of Kennecott is really what makes it stand out as one of the most stunning places I’ve ever visited. The town is perched on the flanks of Bonanza Ridge, with rocky peaks towering more than 4,000 feet above and what remains of the Kennicott Glacier below. At first glance, it is not apparent (even to a geologist) that the mounds of rubble in the valley below ARE a glacier, but ice does lay beneath the veneer of debris. Like most of the world’s alpine glaciers, the Kennicott Glacier has retreated dramatically since the town’s heyday in the early 1900s, when its surface was level with or even above the elevation of the town. Today, you look down several hundred feet on to what remains of the glacier and the detritus it has brought with it out of the mountains. The origin of the glacier, and the dominant feature of the northern skyline, is the massive Mt. Blackburn, the fifth highest peak on the United States at 16,391 feet:

Wooden buildings cling to a slope with glacier covered mountains in the background

Old mining buildings in Kennecott cling to the slopes above the debris-covered Kennicott Glacier, which originates on the slopes of Mt. Blackburn, seen in the background.

A few miles north of Kennecott, the Kennecott Glacier is joined by the Root Glacier, a somewhat more “normal” looking glacier that we spent nearly an entire day exploring. The experience was rather surreal given that the air temperature was nearly 90 degrees. Climates amenable to the formation of glaciers don’t often produce days where a swim in the frigid glacial melt water actually sounds appealing as opposed to horrifying, but that was certainly the case on this day.

As spectacular as the glacier was, there is something quite unsettling about walking around on one in a T-shirt. The signs and symptoms of a warming climate were all encompassing. We walked along deep gouges (surprisingly reminiscent of Utah slot canyons) carved into the ice by strong currents of melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

encountered many sublime pools filled with deep, electric blue pools of glacial melt water…

The Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

and carefully avoided deep shafts, known as moulins, that carry cascades of melt water into the internal plumbing of the glacier. In many places, we could hear the dull roar of the melt water boring tunnels through the ice beneath our feet. Glaciers like Root won’t survive many more summers with too many days like this one.

A channel of water flowing across a white glacier carves a tight bend in the ice

Meander in a meltwater channel, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Brown sediment fills in interestingly shaped cracks in glacial ice

Patterns of sediment in the ice, Root Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Despite the best efforts of the interpretive signs displaying historical photographs, and the park film showing the sights and sounds of the past, the sheer remoteness of Kennecott in 2019 makes it difficult to imagine the Kennecott of 1919: a busy town immersed in the deafening roar of copper mining, with a glacier not yet ravaged by climate change dominating the horizon.

Cluster of pink flowers overlooking a debris covered glacier at sunset

Clusters of fireweed overlooking the Kennicott Glacier, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve, Alaska