Alaska’s small glaciers are on their way out

Gulkana Glacier, here seen from Summit Lake off the Richardson Highway, is shrinking back into the mountains of the Alaska Range. (Photo by Ned Rozell.)

Glaciers worldwide are withering. Half of them will disappear by the end of this century, and much of the ice lost will vanish from mountains in Alaska, scientists say.

Authors of a recent cover story in the journal Science used high-performance computers to predict the fates of 215,547 glaciers on Earth. They excluded the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica.

Their conclusions: Goodbye to Bird, Crow, Daisy, Dogshead, Polychrome, Prospect, Red, Rex, Shakespeare and Spoon glaciers by the year 2100. If not earlier.

True, most of us won’t be here in 77 years either, but warmer air temperatures will probably erase those Alaska glaciers and a few dozen more — including an Anchorage water source named Eklutna Glacier — before then.

A visitor stands on the shore of a lake near Worthington Glacier, which is accessible by the Richardson Highway not far from Valdez. (Photo by Ned Rozell.)

UAF Geophysical Institute scientists including David Rounce (now at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh) and Regine Hock are the lead authors on the study.

Using supercomputers at UAF, they forecast the future of the world’s glaciers under a few different warming scenarios, each of which humanity is currently speeding past.

“Even under the very optimistic scenario corresponding to the goal of the Paris agreement, about half of the glaciers are expected to be lost by the end of the century,” Hock said.

In their data-set, the scientists looked at glaciers all over the world, in regions they called Arctic Canada North, Central Asia, and Russian Arctic, among a dozen others. Alaska is one of the places with the most ice to lose. Alaska’s glaciers have already shrunk in elevation three feet each year during the past two decades.

Alaska glaciers are huge contributors to global ice loss because there are so many of them, and a lot of them are huge. Many Alaska glaciers are also at low elevations where gravity conveyor-belts their ice into the melting zone.

If the planet’s temperatures continue on this trajectory, favorite roadside glaciers will slip out of sight. This will likely play out in most Alaska glacier-towns, including Juneau, by the end of the century.

“Mendenhall Glacier may not disappear completely, but it will certainly retreat so much that it won´t be visible from the visitor center, even for the (most optimistic) scenario,” Hock said.

Visitors take images of Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau in summer 2022 from inside the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Photo by Ned Rozell.)

Aside from aesthetics, why does the disappearance of glacier ice matter? Hock said that all that fresh water now dumping into the Gulf of Alaska will affect ocean circulation and ecosystems.

Also, worldwide seas could rise half a foot from the loss of glacier ice by 2100.

Rounce compiled a list of more than 200 named Alaska glaciers that will be gone by the end of the century if the planet’s average yearly temperature rises 4 degrees C from what it was before the Industrial Revolution. That’s a lot of goodbyes.

Here’s the list:

 

  • Adams Glacier
  • Aho Glacier
  • Alexander Glacier
  • Anderson Glacier
  • Andrei Glacier
  • Andrews Glacier
  • Annin Glacier
  • Arey Glacier
  • Baby Glacier
  • Baker Glacier
  • Baldwin Glacier
  • Barnard Glacier
  • Bear Lake Glacier
  • Bench Glacier
  • Bettles Glacier
  • Bird Glacier
  • Boundary Glacier
  • Bravo Glacier
  • Brilliant Glacier
  • Burns Glacier
  • Cantwell Glacier
  • Canyon Glacier
  • Cap Glacier
  • Carl Glacier
  • Cascading Glacier
  • Casey Glacier
  • Chamberlain Glacier
  • Charpentier Glacier
  • Cheja West Glacier
  • Chigmit North Glacier
  • Chigmuit South Glacier
  • Chikuminuk Glacier
  • Clara Smith Glacier
  • Claremont Glacier
  • Clark Glacier
  • Clear Glacier
  • Coal Glacier
  • College Glacier
  • Concordia Glacier
  • Contact Glacier
  • Corbin Glacier
  • Crab Glacier
  • Crow Glacier
  • Cul-de-sac Glacier
  • Daisy Glacier
  • Dartmouth Glacier
  • Deadman Glacier
  • Detached Glacier
  • Dickinson Glacier
  • Dixon Glacier
  • Dogshead Glacier
  • Doroshin Glacier
  • Downer Glacier
  • Eagle Glacier
  • Eaglek Glacier
  • East Alapah Glacier
  • East Yakutat Glacier
  • Echo Glacier
  • Eklutna Glacier
  • Exit Glacier
  • Explorer Glacier
  • Falling Glacier
  • Ferguson Glacier
  • Fleischmann Glacier
  • Flute Glacier
  • Fourth Glacier
  • Girdled Glacier
  • Gooseneck Glacier
  • Gracey Creek Glacier
  • Gray Glacier
  • Greenpoint Glacier
  • Heiden Glacier
  • Henry Glacier
  • Hidden Glacier
  • Hogback Glacier
  • Holyoke Glacier
  • Hubley Glacier
  • Hummel Glacier
  • Hunter Creek Glacier
  • Icicle Glacier
  • Indian Glacier
  • Irene Glacier
  • Johnson Glacier
  • Johnson Glacier
  • Johnson Glacier
  • Kachemak Glacier
  • Kadachan Glacier
  • Kashoto Glacier
  • Killey Glacier
  • Kings Glacier
  • Koniag Glacier
  • Kulavok Glacier
  • Lafayette Glacier
  • Lare Glacier
  • Latouche Glacier
  • Le Blondeau Glacier
  • Leaking Glacier
  • Lechner Glacier
  • Leffingwell Glacier
  • Lemon Creek Glacier
  • Little Jarvis Glacier
  • Loomis Glacier
  • Lowell Glacier
  • Marshall Glacier
  • Martin Glacier
  • Maynard Glacier
  • McCall Glacier
  • McCallum Glacier
  • McCarthy Creek Glacier
  • McCarty Glacier
  • McCune Glacier
  • Metal Creek Glacier
  • Milk Glacier
  • Mineral Creek Glacier
  • Mint Glacier
  • Morse Glacier
  • Mother Goose Glacier
  • Muth Glacier
  • Neacola Glacier
  • Nelson Glacier
  • North Baird Glacier
  • Nugget Creek Glacier
  • Ogive Glacier
  • Okpilak Glacier
  • Organ Glacier
  • Patton Glacier
  • Pedro Glacier
  • Pegmatite Glacier
  • Penniman Glaciers
  • Polychrome Glacier
  • Popof Glacier
  • Porcupine Glacier
  • Prospect Glacier
  • Ptarmigan Glacier
  • Puget Glacier
  • Rainbow Glacier
  • Ranney Glacier
  • Rasmuson Glacier
  • Raven Glacier
  • Red Glacier
  • Rex Glacier
  • Riley Creek Glacier
  • Ripon Glacier
  • Roaring Glacier
  • Romer Glacier
  • Saksaia Glacier
  • Saussure Glacier
  • Schubee Glacier
  • Schwanda Glacier
  • Scidmore Glacier
  • Seefar Glacier
  • Seth Glacier
  • Shakespeare Glacier
  • Shephard Glacier
  • Shiels Glacier
  • Silver Glacier
  • Skee Glacier
  • Slope Glacier
  • South Glacier
  • Split Glacier
  • Split Glacier
  • Split Thumb Icefall
  • Spoon Glacier
  • Stony Glacier
  • Sumdum Glacier
  • Sunrise Glacier
  • Surprise Glacier
  • Talkeetna Glacier
  • Tasnuna Glacier
  • Texas Glacier
  • The Knife Creek Glaciers
  • Thiel Glacier
  • Through Glacier
  • Thumb Glacier
  • Tigertail Glacier
  • Tikke Glacier
  • Tired Pup Glacier
  • Tkope Glacier
  • TlikakilaNorthFork
  • Toboggan Glacier
  • Tok Glacier
  • Toklat1
  • Toklat2
  • Tommy Glacier
  • Tongue Glacier
  • Tonsina Glacier
  • Trail Glacier
  • Truuli Glacier
  • Tsina Glacier
  • Twentyseven Mile Glacier
  • Twin Glacier
  • Ultramarine Glacier
  • Villard Glacier
  • Warm Creek Glacier
  • Wedge Glacier
  • West Alapah Glacier
  • West Gulkana Glacier
  • West Yakutat Glacier
  • Westbrook Glacier
  • White Glacier
  • Whittier Glacier
  • Williams Glacier
  • Windy Glacier
  • Yuri Glacier

Ned Rozell, University of Alaska

Ned Rozell is a science writer with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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