Glacial Flight

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My visit to Alaska last week, to attend a memorial for a young friend, was marked by both tears and laughter.

Small glacial pools glint in the Knik Glacier, Alaska. All photos: PKR

Small glacial pools glint in the Knik Glacier, Alaska.
All photos: PKR

Tears because of his tragic and early death, laughter in memory of his brilliant and raucously funny spirit.

The black line where two glaciers meet.

The black line where two glaciers meet.

In the midst of this, I was offered a chance to take a flight over the glaciers of the Chugach Mountains.

A waterfall of glacial ice.

A waterfall of glacial ice.

Here are so many textures of harsh beauty. It was hard to take in the vast and wild views – whether viewed from above or below, the landscape defies easy comprehension.

There are 25,000 glaciers across the territory defined as Alaska – all but five of those glaciers are in retreat. The ones that end in water are famous for their spectacular loss of ice in calving events. But the glaciers we flew over were mostly mountain glaciers, most of which end in land – and which are also retreating very rapidly.

Estimated mass balance (1994-2013) for surveyed and unsurveyed glaciers in the most densely glacierized subregion of Alaska. The inset shows the entire region. Black lines indicate survey flight lines. Caption/Credit: Chris Larsen

Estimated mass balance (1994-2013) for surveyed and unsurveyed glaciers in the most densely glacierized subregion of Alaska. The inset shows the entire region. Black lines indicate survey flight lines.
Caption/Credit: Chris Larsen

According to a recent release published by the American Geophysical Union, “Mountain glaciers hold less than 1 percent of the Earth’s glacial ice volume. The rest is held in ice sheets on Antarctica and Greenland.

“However, the rapid shrinking of mountain glaciers causes nearly one-third of current sea level rise.”IMG_1772

Meanwhile, as I wrote in a recent post, retreating ice offers a multitude of possibilities in terms of transportation and resource exploitation.

As a New York Times article put it, whether Alaska becomes “an ecological preserve or an economic engine, an area of international cooperation or confrontation — is now the question at the center of the unfolding geopolitical competition.”

With glaciers as far as the eye can see, it’s hard to believe that formations so old and so large, and that took so long to develop, could disappear in a few short decades. IMG_1770I wasn’t in Alaska as a tourist. I went to remember and celebrate someone who departed far too young, and whose absence has left us all in shock.

So my state of mind on this visit was one of treasuring what we have in life, and mourning the treasures we lose too early.

This unexpected, awe-inspiring and melancholy flight over the rugged, ancient glaciers of southern Alaska – which was paid with a bottle of whisky when the pilot wouldn’t accept any fuel money – was well in keeping with the rest of my short journey there.

Bright blue pools of melted glacier water along a line where two glaciers flow side-by-side.

Bright blue pools of melted glacier water along a line where two glaciers flow side-by-side.

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