Viewing Glaciers in Alaska
Alaska cruising season starts in May when throngs of visitors board the ships to tour this beautiful state. Other than the wildlife and dramatic scenery, one of Alaska’s main attractions are its glaciers. The Alaska Almanac estimates 100,000 of them – remnants of the Little Ice Age 4,000 years ago. During our Alaska cruises, we’ve been lucky to visit a few of these glaciers. Seeing the massive glaciers in Alaska was beyond awe-inspiring.
Glaciers are defined in its most simple terms as a “body of snow and ice that moves”. They are formed when high altitude snowfall exceeds snowmelt. Snow, ice and rock debris are transported from higher to lower elevations where snow and ice melt. Over time, increasing layers of packed snow compacts and transforms into glacial ice. Although they appear to be stationary, they are actually constantly moving and flowing down the mountain and shaping the landscape.
Mendenhall Glacier is the most easily accessible Alaska glacier. It is one of the 38 major glaciers flowing from the Juneau Icefield which covers 1,500 square miles of interconnected glaciers, rock, snow and ice.
This major tourist attraction in Alaska’s capital city of Juneau certainly didn’t disappoint. It flowed 12 miles (19.3 km) from its source and was part of the Tongass National Forest. Despite being overrun by tourists when multiple cruise ships dock, it really was a fantastic place to visit. They had a wonderful visitor’s center to learn more about these amazing natural wonders.
Six hiking trails are available to get near the glacier or to simply stroll around and enjoy the scenery. Plenty of icebergs that have broken off were floating everywhere with occasional kayakers enjoying them up close. We’d love to do this adventure when the kids get a bit older.
One of the features we instantly noticed about the glaciers was the scattered blue fragments. Glacial ice looks blue because it transmits and scatters the blue wavelength while absorbing all the other colors of the visible light spectrum. The longer the path of light travels in ice, the more it looks blue.
Many of the glaciers in Alaska are currently retreating due to global climate change. This means that more ice is falling off or removed from the glacier than its glacial flow is able to replenish. Below is a picture of Mendenhall during our visits in 2003 and 2010. There’s a stark contrast in color and size and it obviously has retreated.
Most cruise ships venture out into Glacier Bay National Park to see the much bigger glaciers. This park is only accessible by water travel where access is restricted and limited. Glaciers here are called tidewater because they flow from the mountains into the tides of the ocean. One of the seven in the park was Margerie Glacier.
It was 21 miles (34 km) long and a lot taller than our 15+ story ship. Seeing it for the first time felt like being transported into another world. The ice was protruding everywhere surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
Our ship stopped a few miles from the glacier where park rangers gave overviews over the loudspeakers. It was very impressive with the glacier rising from the water and towering above us in the scenic landscape.
Next to Margerie was the Grand Pacific Glacier – the dirty side of it. It was a wall of brown and black rocks and dirt debris embedded in the ice. It was such a contrast to Margerie’s white and blue facade and a total contradiction of my image of a glacier.
The most impressive glacier we saw was Hubbard Glacier. It is North America’s longest tidewater glacier with a length of 76 miles (122 km) that extends all the way to Canada’s Yukon territory. Six miles (9.6 km) of it is running along the waterline. The vibrant blue hue was much more noticeable here.
What’s a trip to Alaska without some seal sighting? They looked like specks of dirty icebergs. But to our surprise, there were quite a few harbor seals and their young pups near the base of the glacier. We saw some floating on the icebergs which made for some good fun things to spot for while sailing on the bay.
To the left of Hubbard Glacier was a long wall of dirty glaciers. Valerie Glacier is shown below.
Their different paths result in this amazing contrast of mostly clean white and blue ice and one that picked up a lot more dirt and debris from the valley floor.
Our ship stopped within a quarter of a mile (the closest ships are allowed) and did two 360 degree turns slowly. The panoramic views were beyond breathtaking and everyone was bundled up to enjoy it on deck. Unlike most glaciers which are retreating, Hubbard is actually advancing. This resulted to a lot of calving activity. Calving is when pieces of the glacial ice fall or break off from it. At first, you hear a crack and then a thundering sound as it falls into the ocean with a big splash. We never experienced it during our previous trip to Margerie but luckily, witnessed a few of them at Hubbard.
It was quite a spectacular sight and magnified with the audience’s exclamations of joy and surprise. The calvings were sudden and unpredictable so patience is a virtue here but well worth the wait. These numerous calvings were what made this an unforgettable experience and a major highlight of our trip.
*Have you visited the glaciers in Alaska or other glaciers in other parts of the world?