by Frances Lamberts
At the National Storytelling Festival this year, featured teller Ingrid Nixon told about the terror and triumph of a brave little dog, Stinkeeen, when crossing a fearsome, wide and deep glacier crevasse in Taylor Bay.
Her tale could draw on personal knowledge from a long earlier career, as ranger in the National Park Service and expedition tourism leader in the Pacific Northwest region and Alaska.
It was also a dramatic retelling of this adventure, first reported by the famed explorer-naturalist John Muir in his “Travels in Alaska,” published in 1915.
Muir described the particular glacier, whose three-mile front reached from wall to wall across its inlet. Having “chopped steps” into a sheer cliff wall and climbing to its top, he saw, “as far as the eye could reach, the nearly level glacier stretched infinitely away in the gray cloudy sky, a prairie of ice.”
He noted “rills and streams outspread over the ice-land prairie,” streams cascading over blue cliff or falling into crevasses, and the glacier’s main current “a magnificent uproar of pinnacles and spires and upheaving.” Its water masses were “incomparably greater and wilder than a score of Niagaras” where it fell into a lake, filling that with bergs.
While throughout this Alaska trip, in 1879, Muir found “grand congregations” of vast glaciers, he observed some of them shrinking. Ocean glaciers, he remarked, retreat more rapidly than inland mountain glaciers since “with each rise and fall of the tide, the sea water rushes in and out beneath them.”
Its temperature being considerably above the freezing point, the water causes “rapid waste of the nether surface, while the upper is being wasted by the weather.”
Eventually, thus, glaciers’ water-born portions “become thin and weak and are broken up and vanish.”
Under climate warming today, glaciers are melting at much faster rates. In late June in the (now) Glacier Bay National Park whose iceberg wonders Muir had studied, a mountain side nearly a mile high, being no longer supported by glacial ice, collapsed completely.
A massive landslide resulted, spewing over 100 million tons of rocks and debris across the landscape.
The impacts of climate disruption are devastating the world over, but especially in the Alaskan Arctic. Rapid warming there, as Dr. Orrin Pilkey explained in an ETSU lecture recently, leads to loss of permafrost in beach sand and coastal soils.
Disruption of the seasonal sea ice cycle worsens the problem since the ice, now thawing earlier in spring and refreezing later in September, used to hold fast the shoreline soils.
Its loss is causing unprecedented erosion.
Like Pacific islanders seeing their land swallowed by the rising seas, more than ten thousand inhabitants of threatened, shoreline Inupiat villages will be among America’s own climate refuges in the foreseeable future, unless action to halt the disastrous climate trend is taken quickly.
The US Army Corps of Engineers estimates the cost of moving Shishmaref, the first of the small Arctic settlements involved, at $300,000 to $400,000 per inhabitant.
Even for its economic damage, we must solve the climate-change problem quickly, before it becomes too late.