At Glacial Speed

by  Sherry Simpson

Like many former Juneau residents, I usually visit the Mendenhall Glacier on trips home. Such pilgrimages have become less about remembering a faithful childhood friend and more about seeing how much the glacier has changed lately. Sure enough, last May I noticed two broad waterfalls streaking down a newly exposed rock slope on the glacier’s east side.

 The Mendenhall has been receding since the 1700s, but in recent years, the retreat has accelerated dramatically and the ice has thinned. The glacier’s terminus lost 540 feet between 2009 and 2010, more than twice the yearly average between 1997 and 2009, according to University of Alaska Southeast researchers. The glacier remains the imposing regent of the Mendenhall Valley and a popular visitor attraction, but the sight of that bared rock reminded me that as the glacier diminishes year by year, like most of Alaska’s glaciers, it leaves behind an altered landscape and many questions about the future, both for people and for the natural world.

Feeling a little sad about the glacier’s headlong retreat, I sent a photograph of the waterfalls to researcher Matt Beedle, who grew up seeing the Mendenhall daily from his parents’ living room. Now he’s a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Northern British Columbia, studying mountain glaciers and glacial change in the Cariboo Mountains and Northern Rockies. He replied, “Some ask me if it is depressing to study a dwindling natural feature, but I find it thrilling, primarily because they are so dynamic.”

This fascination for the restless nature of glaciers led him to create an innovative website, GlacierChange.org, to capture stories about glaciers and their role in human life. Some of these stories include the quantitative measurements valuable to researchers, he said in a phone interview. “But these more visceral experiences that some of us are fortunate to have, I think they speak far more to us,” he said.

That’s why the site includes not only scientific information but also a community scrapbook where people can contribute their responses to glaciers through photographs, videos, poetry, stories and art.

“They inform us more on a human level, I guess, in terms of what this natural feature is, what this natural feature means to us, why it’s important, and the power in its dynamism, in its changes that we see,” he said. (Full disclosure: Beedle originally contacted me seeking permission to reprint excerpts from an essay about growing up near the Mendenhall Glacier.)

For people like Beedle, a fourth-generation Juneauite on his mother’s side, the Mendenhall was almost a member of the family as well as an outdoor playground, he said.

“I go to my grandma’s house and she’s got old boxes of brilliant photos,” he said. “Some of them are pictures of my mom when she was 4 in front of the Mendenhall, and I think those are amazing, really neat in terms of telling a story of how both we change and how our surroundings change.”

Beedle’s relationship with the glacier expanded in high school after he participated in the Juneau Icefield Research Program and spent two months traveling 125 miles across the massive ice field to Atlin, B.C., in the company of other high school students, graduate students and college professors. The program, founded by Maynard Miller in 1946, immersed Beedle in the powerful experience of field research and set his career path. Today, Beedle is a board member of the foundation that oversees JIRP.

GlacierChange.org emerged from his long interest in communicating scientific research to the public in a meaningful way.

“All of our work, whether it’s in Canada or in the states, is funded publicly, and yet very few members of the public can comprehend what we’re talking about in our papers,” he said. “And this is because we speak very clearly and effectively with our fellow glacier nerds by using horrible acronyms and equations and all that jazz. … And I think we’re doing the larger community, the public, a great disservice by only communicating in that way.” Beedle plans to include summaries of academic papers written in plain English but to avoid injecting policy advocacy and politics into the science.

“There are quite a few examples [showing] that this has tended more to politicize science than to scientize politics,” he said. Communicating in a “trusted, nonbiased, accurate yet creative way” doesn’t succeed if you’re only preaching to the choir, he added. Besides, “glaciers don’t have an agenda.” His goal isn’t simply to translate science, either. He wants people to contribute directly to understanding glacier science, just as they do elsewhere. For example, he said, since the late 1800s, Icelandic families living near the base of glaciers have been measuring the distance between rock cairns and the ice terminus, recording simple data that have yielded some of the planet’s longest records of annual glacier change. That’s valuable information in a world where only 30 of about 200,000 mountain glaciers have been monitored regularly enough to serve as benchmark glaciers. People are joining his initiative. A mountain guide with a chalet 100 meters from Hudson Bay Glacier near Smithers, B.C., has started tracking his icy neighbor, and Beedle has taught monitoring techniques to a First Nations community concerned about its local glacial watershed. He’s also launching a project to record changes through www.geocaching.com, a global treasure hunt in which people stash trinkets in interesting places and then provide coordinates online so that others using GPS devices can find the caches. Earth-caching asks people to take photographs and log information that would otherwise be expensive to gather.

Beedle’s first cache is “Mal’s Photo Point” above the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, where Maynard Miller long took students and researchers for a panoramic view before their ice field treks. Comparing 1958 pictures taken from that spot with recent images that Beedle added to his website makes the glacier’s dramatic retreat clear.

Glaciers cover 10 percent of the planet’s land area, so it’s not hard to understand why they matter as more than natural curiosities. They reveal valuable information about climates past and present. They support tourism and recreation. Most importantly, they’re a huge part of the hydrological system, Beedle said. Glaciers store about 75 percent of the world’s fresh water, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Glacial runoff fills rivers, provides drinking water, irrigates crops, relieves dry seasons, and in places like Canada and Alaska, regulates the temperatures of salmon rivers. Dwindling sources of frozen water are already a problem in places like Bolivia, Beedle said.

GlacierChange.org displays the ways in which glaciers matter to individual people, too. In 2010, Beedle photographed his parents and grandmother at the Mendenhall Glacier standing in nearly the same spot where they’d posed in 1974, four years before his birth. The ice behind them has diminished dramatically, but their bright smiles haven’t.

“Often we see images of landscape change, but without some tangible reference to ‘human-time,’ ” Beedle wrote. “I love the plaid wool pants and sweaters in the earlier image, can hear the water lapping at the edge of Mendenhall Lake, and see the gently rocking iceberg in the latter image; I love the vibrancy of my family in both. Some things change, others don’t.”

—Sherry Simpson teaches creative writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage and is the author of The Accidental Explorer: Wayfinding in Alaska, and The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories, both published by Sasquatch Books.

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