There is something immutable about glaciers. Civilizations come and go, it seems, but glaciers just keep, well . . . glaciating at their own imperceptible pace. But the Columbia Glacier in Alaska has suddenly begun to retreat at the glacial equivalent of the four-minute mile. In some places the glacier retreated 3,600 feet during 1984, shucking off icebergs at the rate of 14 million tons a day into Prince William Sound near Valdez.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Columbia will shrink at the rate of nearly a mile a year during the next three decades. The 40-mile-long Columbia will become half as long.
Mark F. Meier, a USGS glaciologist, says that the geological phenomenon is part of the natural cycle of glaciers that flow to the sea. The Columbia is the last of about 50 glaciers in Alaska to undergo this process of rapid disintegration, which has been forecast by the survey for several years.
This is an exciting event for Meier and his colleagues, much as the Mt. St. Helens eruption was for volcanologists. As the glacier retreats, scientists will be on hand to witness personally the unveiling of a dramatic new fiord, along with new plant and animal communities. And they will learn more about why the world is the way it is.