Alaska Glacier Shrinking--But Not at Glacial Pace
The Columbia Glacier near Valdez is retreating so quickly that tour boats should be able to work their way up to its face within the next decade or so, a scientist says.
The glacier is shrinking as much as 100 feet per day. “That’s really ripping along,” said Tad Pfeffer, a University of Colorado researcher.
The Columbia Glacier is a massive river of ice flowing from the Chugach Mountains into a side channel of Prince William Sound. It has been rapidly sliding on its bed. The front of the glacier is breaking off icebergs, which can pose a threat in shipping lanes.
The glacier most likely will make a hasty retreat up the fiord or thin quickly and disintegrate abruptly, Pfeffer said. He is the chief author of a paper about the glacier that was published recently in Eos, an international scientific newsletter of the American Geophysical Union.
When it does disintegrate, “it should be quite a spectacular sight,” he said. Tour boats--in 10 to 50 years by the best calculations--should be floating where the glacier is sitting today.
The scientist doesn’t blame global warming, however, because other nearby glaciers aren’t doing a similar disappearing act. Instead, Pfeffer thinks something complex is going on inside the glacier that’s causing it to calve icebergs at an impressive rate.
“The loss of ice primarily is due to calving rather than to thermal reasons,” he said.
The Columbia Glacier was named by Captain Cook as he explored Prince William Sound in 1890. It has retreated and advanced many times before. Cook was greeted by a Columbia in full advance, which it did until about 1982. Since then, the 435-square-mile glacier has retreated more than seven miles.