Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is one of those Alaska showpieces more often seen by visitors than by the state’s residents. When I finally got there this summer, after more than 40 years living in Alaska, I arrived the way most people do, onboard a cruise ship, in the company of a few thousand tourists from around the world.
The remote park’s lofty summits and ice-carved fjords, the humpbacks and orcas and grizzlies, lived up to what I’d heard. As passengers spilled onto the upper observation deck, agog, the ship’s theatrical pirouette before a wall of blue glacial ice showed off Romantic nature in all its timeless glory.
Something was amiss, though, at least for me. I was along for the trip as an invited local speaker — Alaska author and freelance wilderness rhapsodist. But during my decades in Alaska, I had seen too many changes, interviewed too many climate scientists, read (well, skimmed) too many studies. I gazed from the railing with a contemporary Alaskan’s gloom, a pilgrim bearing witness to end-times in the temple of the glaciers.
I started asking around to see if anybody else felt this way.
The park rangers told me that glacier tourism was indeed changing. On these cruise ships, the disappearance of coffee to-go cups from the breakfast service is one of the first signs you have sailed into a national park. It’s part of your ship’s concession contract: no latte cups flying into pristine waters. The casino games shut down, and uniformed rangers are brought aboard to mingle and give talks about the environment.
The rangers confirmed what I was hearing from my fellow passengers: Uncertainty, if not grief, is now part of the Alaska traveler’s experience. Most visitors, the rangers told me, still ask the questions they always have: Does the bay freeze over in winter? Is that a seal or an eagle on that iceberg? Like generations of tourists before them, they have come to see the wild planet, not some sad memorial to its passing. A few ask how the glaciers are doing. They want to know why Alaska is warming so much faster than other places. A young family told me they had come now before it was too late.
On the other hand, one ranger told me, certain travelers really want to argue. They tell her that technology will fix the problem, or they explain why fixes proposed so far would be too expensive. Or, frequently, they declare that the park’s warming trend is a natural planetary thing.
A difficulty the National Park Service faces, trying to tell the story of today’s science, is that the park’s own brochure maps show lines and dates of a glacial retreat that do indeed make it look like a natural planetary thing. At Glacier Bay, the retreat — really more of a rout — began around 1750, when the glacial advance during a centuries-long period of cooler temperatures know as the Little Ice Age had reached its maximum extent. The entire bay was covered by a glacier more than 4,000 feet thick. The British Navy captain George Vancouver mapped the outer edge when he visited in 1794. By the time the naturalist John Muir arrived, in 1879, the ice had already retreated 40 miles up the bay. The smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution had only just started spewing carbon into the atmosphere.
Today, cruise ships must travel 65 miles into the bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to reach the last few majestic faces of ice. These ballyhooed encounters draw even nature-averse passengers onto their balconies, where they squint through their phones and listen for the famous “white thunder” of calving icebergs, as great towers of ice peel off the glacier’s face into the water. In a stable ice field system, each rumble and splash is exciting evidence of forward movement, of Nature’s dynamic equilibrium. With the system now breaking down, each crashing iceberg felt like another loss.
Here’s how the park’s scientists had explained it to me: Tidewater glaciers like those at Glacier Bay, when healthy, advance slowly over centuries toward the sea, pushing before them a shield of rocky moraine scraped from the mountainsides. Eventually such a glacier extends into the ocean. The rock armor tumbles into the deep. Exposed to the forces of the sea, the ice face begins breaking apart and the glacier retreats to the mountains, where it begins to gather new moraine for its next slow advance.
Today, however, the last tidewater glaciers continue to recede up into the mountains rather than gathering for another advance. There are exceptions, depending on the lay of the land: A few glaciers in the park are growing, particularly in the Fairweather Range, one of the world’s tallest coastal mountain ranges, as increased moisture from the warmer ocean dumps more snow in those high mountains. But in most of the park, low-elevation melting now exceeds the heavier snowfall up high.
Since 1950, Glacier Bay’s average air temperature has warmed five degrees Fahrenheit. In the past 20 years, the region’s glacierized area, including in the park, has suffered the largest net ice loss of any of the planet’s 50 World Heritage sites with glaciers: 487 billion metric tons.
One could fairly ask if I was contributing to the problem there at the railing, rubbernecking from an ocean liner. For now, I reasoned — if we’re going to agree it’s a good thing for people to see their national park — these 18-story fossil-fuel-burning cruise ships, strictly limited to two per day, offer the efficiencies of mass transit. Before the pandemic, when close to 600,000 people were visiting Glacier Bay in a year, 95 percent came and went on cruise ships. This past summer, visitation was back to about 60 percent of what it had been.
These visitors were getting a close look at the forces shaping our planet’s future. Would my shipmates go home comforted to have seen Alaska’s “untrammeled majesty” — or newly determined to halt its trammeling? The park service tried to convey a low-key message. A ranger giving a talk about the relentless grinding of bedrock by glaciers ended by noting that even such awesome power could not prevail against a warming world. These tidewater glaciers might not be here for future cruise ships. But don’t feel hopeless, she said. You can take action. A glacier starts with a single flake.
I’m sorry to say that the ranger’s exhortations were unable to rouse me from my melancholy that afternoon. The tour company’s website had promised a visit to “Mother Nature’s masterpieces.” All I could see was a landscape painting of the end of the world.
Earlier on the voyage, during my hour onstage, I had told my own story — a brash kid comes to Alaska on a summer mountain-climbing expedition, and the encounter with wilderness changes his life, gives him something timeless and comforting to believe in. But those youthful revelations came long ago. As the great ship turned and sailed slowly out the fjord, I felt expelled from Eden, the familiar consolations of nature slipping through my mortal fingers.
I found a sunny deck chair on the ship’s stern, clamped on a pair of headphones and cued up the final movement of Mahler’s Ninth, his aching farewell symphony. As I watched the last glaciers recede from view, the violins eased me at last into the consoling adagio of geological time. The glaciers will come back someday. But our species will be gone.
Tom Kizzia was a reporter for The Anchorage Daily News for 25 years. He is the author of several books about Alaska, most recently, the ghost-town history “Cold Mountain Path.”
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