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Hills with hearts of ice?

Under a blanket of organic material, an ancient iceburg may persist as a reminder of a glacier's past

Posted: December 27, 2013 - 12:02am
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Families sled on the glacial kame in front of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Friday. Mount McGinnis rises in the background.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Families sled on the glacial kame in front of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center on Friday. Mount McGinnis rises in the background.

If you remember a popular Juneau sledding hill as bigger when you were young, chances are … you’re right.

The knoll in front of the parking lot near the the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center was formed when sediment covered an iceberg that was left behind when the glacier pulled away from the area in the late 1940s. It became a “kame,” an iceberg covered in sediment, disguised as a simple hill.

Back when they first began to form, the main kame near the parking lot was at least ten times as big it is now, according to photos and those who remember.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize that,” said Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center Lead Naturalist Laure Craig on the hills’ formation. “One of the interesting things is that people who grew up here and remember looking at them when they were small … say ‘Oh, they were so much bigger back then.’ But in this case, it’s true.”

“It’s an interesting aspect of climate change and melting, and all the changes that we see occurring around the glacier,” she said. “It’s happening fast enough that we can observe it.”

“I think the interesting thing is (the kame is) the visual evidence the glacier left — that it used to be right there,” said UAS Professor of Geology Cathy Connor. “It’s a continuum of the whole moraine around the lake.”

There’s also a small kame at the end of photo point, looking toward the glacier, and another next to the main sledding hill.

“The kids these days aren’t getting as much of a sled ride,” Connor said.

Local historian Jim Geraghty said when he was a boy, in the 1960s, he and friends used to run across the top of the kame and jump off it, sinking into gravel so soft they’d be buried up to the waist. “You’d go home with gravel in your pants,” he said.

Sliding down would reveal the black ice beneath a surface layer of silt, he said.

The kame hasn’t changed as much in recent years as it has in years past, but in order to know for sure if there’s ice inside, someone would need to drill into it.

“The process is such that the glacier itself is a conveyer belt of not only water and ice, but alo sediment as well,” Craig said. “The changes are pretty phenomenal. Thank goodness for the people who had the forethought to take pictures.”

Contact Outdoors reporter Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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