Juneau. It was a cool and clear Bastille Day, July 14, 2017, when we entered the Tracy Arm and Ford’s Terror Wilderness Area on the M/V Liseron, touring Southeast Alaska from Sitka to Juneau. Ice had blocked access to the Dawes Glacier (named the Young Glacier by John Muir in 1879) at the end of the Endicott Fjord, following a landslide reported the previous week by vessels attempting to enter the area. We elected to venture our way up the alternative fjord, Tracy Arm, and attempt to visit the Sawyer and South Sawyer Glaciers. We were successful on both accounts, and surprised by what we encountered.
In particular, we saw an enormous sand bar at the base of the Sawyer Glacier, indicating that it has reached that stage of recession at which it ceases being a tidewater glacier, and becomes an alpine glacier. While it is likely that it will continue to drop some ice into the fjord’s seawater for weeks and months to come, as the flowing river of ice continues to push down the valley, its days as a fjord-maker appear to be over.
This marks the end of a retreat which has likely gone on for over 270 years, with the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-1700s. The Sawyer Glacier was several miles further up the fjord when John Muir first saw it, brought there in a hired canoe by a group of Stikine Tlingit Alaskans in 1879. At that time Muir delighted in the Yosemite-like cliffs and waterfalls of the area, along with its wildflowers and birds. His Tlingit companions appreciated the glacier as a powerful and potentially dangerous part of the landscape, and an excellent area to hunt seals. The glacier has retreated more rapidly in the past decade, the hottest decade on record. It has jumped back over a mile with icefalls that occasionally clog up the fjord with so many icebergs that most vessels can’t enter it. Large expanses of newly exposed bedrock attest to the speed and extent of the retreat.
South Sawyer Glacier has itself been largely inaccessible for the past two years, as its rapid retreat has also produced an enormous quantity of ice,which has clogged up the fjord and prevented most ships from getting close enough to see it. The glacier leapt back approximately one mile in 2015 alone, revealing a new island, but it has quickly filled up the fjord in front of it with packed ice in the process. The unusually abundant flow of ice has occurred as a result of the glacier having reached a point in its recession where it spills down a steep slope. The terminus of the glacier for the past two years has been at the foot of this slope, where the ice drops down over a wall of bedrock that will soon be revealed as another stunning steep cliff wall in this historically celebrated majestic fjord. Just beyond the next bend in the glacier it is intersected with a large tributary arm, which adds to the pressure pushing down on the river of ice as it plummets in accelerated slow motion. The wall of rock, over which the ice is currently spilling from the south side, towers over 1,000 feet above sea level. The icefall therefore cascades in frozen torrents at times directly over the 1,000 foot ridge into the fjord below. Deep blue ice more typical of a glacier face at sea level can be viewed at that great height, where cracks in the surface reveal its depths as it bends over the cliff below it.
It’s a rare and magnificent spectacle to witness, with the deep blues contrasted with bright white ice, a feast to the eyes of the few who have had the opportunity to see it, due to the volume of ice pushing its way out the fjord. Mountain goats are among the few who are able to appreciate the rapid changes occurring, as well as many hundreds of harbor seals which have been taking advantage of the abundant new opportunities of iceberg real estate. The seals haul out on the ice each spring and fall to give birth and molt, respectively. Last year the Tongass National Forest rangers counted 800 seals in front of the glacier, which is a far higher number than found in previous years.
As the ice continues to tumble and melt, the South Sawyer Glacier will reveal new vistas of the deep wilderness, and within a few years the next tributary glacier will be revealed coming from a valley to the south. This currently unnamed glacier is also diminishing in height and will likely follow its neighbors and predecessors in making a quick exit up into the higher mountains around a corner. I propose calling it the Al Gore Glacier, in recognition of the 2007 Nobel Prize winner and former Vice President who has done his best to warn people about the effects of our excessive fossil fuel consumption. Gore has just published another book, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power” (Rodale Inc., January 2017), along with an accompanying film, describing our perilous state of affairs relating to the international climate crisis, and how we must rise to the occasion to prevent a much greater level of climate and ocean chemistry disruption.
Southeast Alaska’s average summer and winter temperatures continue to climb, and the glaciers continue to collapse vertically as they retreat, with new exposed sand and rock visible across the entire region, easily seen from airplanes traveling to and from Juneau on a clear day.
The Sawyer Glacier is still beautiful and worth visiting, but it won’t be long before it, like the Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, disappears around some mountain corner, and becomes a forgotten celebrity of our cooler past. Global warming and climate destabilization are pressing forward, along with increasing acidification of our oceans, and pressing us with a very important question. When will we stop listening to people who shun science, reason, and facts, and take the advice of the many leaders who have urged us to make a transition from fossil fuels to sustainable energy technologies? We are not doing the seals any favors by ignoring the cause and effect relationship between our wanton use of ancient sequestered carbon, and the wholesale shift of our ecosystems into a state so unstable that they are barely liveable for many species. It is well beyond the time for change. The Sawyer Glacier’s retirement comes like the death of a large, cold, canary, letting us know that it’s time to get out of the coal mine once and for all.
Kenneth O’Brien has a Masters of Science in Natural Resources from the University of Wisconsin. He’s worked as a naturalist for the past five years aboard vessels of several companies. This is his ninth summer in Alaska. He and his wife Karen work on humpback whale education projects for the Maui Whale Trust and the Alaska Whale Foundation.