La Perouse Glacier in Southeast Alaska retreats from a campsite in summer 2021. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

La Perouse Glacier in Southeast Alaska retreats from a campsite in summer 2021. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

Alaska Science Forum: Number of Alaska glaciers is everchanging

A glaciologist once wrote that the number of glaciers in Alaska “is estimated at (greater than) 100,000.” That fuzzy number, perhaps written in passive voice for a reason, might be correct. But it depends upon how you count.

Another glaciologist saw an example of the confusion when he visited Yakutat Glacier. Yakutat, near the Alaska town of the same name, is a withering glacier that calves into a deep lake of its own making. As it dies, Yakutat Glacier will increase the number of glaciers in Alaska.

And it won’t take long, said Martin Truffer of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The glacier is melting so fast it is fragmenting into smaller bodies of ice.

“You get into that paradoxical situation where a glacier is retreating and you get more glaciers,” Truffer said.

His colleague Regine Hock pointed out a similar situation when pondering a request from a magazine reporter on the number of Alaska glaciers.

“Because of climate warming, the number of glaciers in Germany has increased over the last decades by several hundred percent,” she wrote in an e-mail. “There were less than a handful of glaciers in the 1990s; now there are more because these two have fallen apart into mini glaciers.”

Astrophysicists Lindsay Glesener, left, and Sabrina Savage enjoy the sunshine on an observation deck at the Neil Davis Science Center on a hilltop at Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks. Their pair of rockets launched from Poker Flat on April 17, 2014. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

Astrophysicists Lindsay Glesener, left, and Sabrina Savage enjoy the sunshine on an observation deck at the Neil Davis Science Center on a hilltop at Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks. Their pair of rockets launched from Poker Flat on April 17, 2014. (Photo by Ned Rozell)

Another problem in counting Alaska’s glaciers arises from the varied names people have assigned to them over the years.

“In Bagley Icefield, it’s really crazy,” Truffer said, referring to a mass of ice where the Southeast panhandle meets the rest of Alaska. “There’s all these different names. Where you separate them, that’s a subjective choice.”

“(Mapmakers) tend to give different names to several branches of an ice mass, all of which, by our more scientific definition, form part of a single glacier,” said the Anthony Arendt of the University of Washington.

“What most people usually see is the very lowest part of a glacier, the glacier tongue coming down a valley,” Hock said. “So, this is one glacier. You drive around the next corner and see another glacier flowing down another valley. So you would think this is two glaciers. However, if you flew over the ice mass you would see that both glaciers are actually connected in a large ice field.

“The basic problem is that ice often is connected high up but then flows into individual valleys,” Hock said. “That’s one reason why the number of glaciers is a pretty meaningless number and impossible to determine accurately; what counts is the total area.”

In a piece he once wrote for the journal Science, Arendt estimated the total area of Alaska’s glaciers at about 34,000 square miles of ice. To put that figure in perspective, that much blue ice would cover the entire state of Maine.

A tip of the cap to astrophysicists Lindsay Glesener of the University of Minnesota and Sabrina Savage of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. After they waited for more than a week, their rockets both launched on April 17, 2024 from Poker Flat Research Range north of Fairbanks. They acquired detailed information about solar flares for their own studies and those of other researchers and graduate students.

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell ned.rozell@alaska.edu is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute. The glaciers portion of this story first appeared in 2014.

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