Voice of the glacier

The glacier - everyone knows it. They know it so well, in fact, that nobody uses its full name, the Mendenhall Glacier. In 2023, 1.7 million people were projected to visit, drawn in by the majesty of the glacier or the promise of seeing humpback whales. As a tour guide taking people to see both, I saw them flock to those sites every single day. While people stood separated from the 13-mile-long glacier only by the Mendenhall Lake, they got to encounter one of the most beautiful and saddest natural scenes of our time - a dying glacier.

Words and photographs by Alexandra Butler

On whale watching tours, the people are separated from the scene of the dying glacier. Out on the boat, the Mendenhall peaks above the mountains on Juneau’s rare sunny days. Even when the clouds cover the ice, signs of the glacier are everywhere. On the ride out to find a whale, the water is tinted green, courtesy of the phytoplankton that bloom from the nutrient rich runoff coming from the glacier and spilling into the Inside Passage of Alaska.

Whale watching guests never seem to care about the plankton or the glacier. That is, until they see a 50-foot humpback whale take a breath, blowing a ball of mist out of the water at 100 miles per hour. The reason the humpbacks flock to the Inside Passage has everything to do with the glacier and the glacier fed phytoplankton – they fuel nearly the entirety of the food chain here, allowing the waters to have enough food to feed about 600 humpback whales for roughly five months.

Every day I talked about these connections from the land to the sea. Every day I saw people gain their own sort of connection to these places. But the one thing I talked about and could never quite convince them of was the funeral march of the glacier. I would call it a slow funeral march for dramatic effect, but that is simply not the truth. It’s faster than it has ever been before; retreating at 160-180 feet per year.

That’s a level of change that typically happens over hundreds of years instead of just one. “Is it really changing… I mean is it actually melting?” many of them ask me and other guides. We try to then show them what the glacier has been trying to tell us for years. On hikes around the east side of the glacier, guides will stop along the way. One stop overlooks the lake where you can see icebergs floating across its surface. Here, I tell them how these are the last icebergs that will ever be seen in this lake because in one year, the glacier will no longer be touching the water.

About a mile later there’s another glimpse of the lake, except from this elevation you can see how it connects to the ocean and delivers that nutrient rich water to our marine life. I’m reminded of the whales here even though we’re on land and in a forest. I tell guests about those connections again.

Later in the hike there are a few overlooks where you used to be able to see the glacier in 2017. Now, there’s not even a corner of ice that’s visible because of how far it has retreated. Guests that have visited in years passed are shocked. They pull out pictures from their phones and show me what they saw from these overlooks just ten years ago.

We continue, and I show them the rocks that have dates carved in marking when the ice used to touch them. ‘Ice limit 1936’ one reads. Then about 50 feet ahead, ‘Ice limit 1937’. The glacier used to retreat about 40-50 feet per year. Now the only thing marking those days is these rocks that appear more like tombstones. After walking through the whole funeral procession, we arrive at the viewing. The best spot to see the glacier now is right on the lake’s edge and even though it has shrunk nearly a mile in the past 24 years it is still magnificent.

Even on cloudy days, brilliant blue ice shines through. The ice curves seductively into the mountains and just barely kisses the edge of Juneau’s characteristic low hanging fog before disappearing around the corner where it connects to the Juneau Ice Field that is the size of Rhode Island. Helicopters flying to take people on glacier walks look like ants compared to the size of the ice. It is incomparable beauty.

The downfall to this is that people seem to forget how this beauty is dying as soon as they lay eyes on it. For them this is the moment of a lifetime, sometimes the happiest day of their life, they tell me. For me, it becomes sadder every time I see it. Every day I came to the glacier and saw something else change. After living in Juneau for just five months I saw noticeably larger amounts of rock exposed where there used to be ice coverage during my first week here in May.

It felt that I had gained an emotional connection to this glacier, and it still feels like its death is truly an omen of something to come if we don’t change.

As I travelled through Alaska, the disappearance of glaciers was apparent all throughout the state. Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords retreated 252 feet in the summer of 2017. The Matanuska Glacier has started its retreat and is thinning about one foot per year. The South Sawyer Glacier, where harbour seals find reprieve from killer whales on icebergs, is losing over 300 feet of ice per year.

“Well I don’t care, I’m not going to be around when all of this is gone,” said a guest in his 70s.

That might be true. But his kids and his grandkids will certainly be around. In 2040 the Mendenhall Glacier is predicted to not be visible from the Visitors Center. As more rock is exposed from melting glaciers, more heat will be absorbed by the earth instead of reflected off the ice, facilitating even more melting and creating a vicious cycle of increased temperatures and disappearing ice.

Already people have had to change jobs in Juneau because of the Mendenhall’s retreat. A former glacier guide switched to become a whale watching guide because the ice caves they used to take people to completely melted away in the summer of 2022.

The whales will still be around, but maybe not in Alaska’s Inside Passage. When glaciers retreat, they take that nutrient rich runoff with them. This means that the runoff is less likely to make it to the ocean and without it, the base layer of the food chain is essentially wiped out.

Without the phytoplankton there can be no krill. Without krill there can be no herring. Without krill or herring there can be no whales.

“Where will the whales go?” asked one guest.

“Will there be enough food for them in other places?” asked another.

“How long will it be before this happens?” was another question.

“What can we do?” was something I was only asked twice over five months of sharing this information.

The Juneau ice field is predicted to be half gone in just 76 years. There is a small window of time to make a difference. The first step is listening. The second step is speaking and acting.

The glacier has been speaking about its fate for quite some time. Through warmer summers, more drastic floods, and rock laid bare where ice used to be – it warns us of what’s to come in the future. It shows us it’s hurting. Once we hear that message it suddenly becomes easier to speak and act for the glaciers because then we can realise that we are all connected. Everything is connected to everything else. That is the principal rule of ecology. No organism, whether it is as big as a whale, as average as a human, or as small as phytoplankton is exempt from that.

The glaciers affect us, and we affect them. The Mendenhall’s rate of melting is a tribute to that, and we would be foolhardy not to listen.


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