My First Trip to the Mendenhall Glacier.

July 24, 2014

Matt Kennedy, Staff Photographer and Multimedia Producer- Earth Vision Institute

Just over seven years ago, the Extreme Ice Survey team installed time-lapse cameras at two well known Alaskan glaciers: the Mendenhall Glacier and the Columbia Glacier. The Mendenhall Glacier is an iconic site to visit for the tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers who pass through Alaska’s capitol city of Juneau each summer.

Whereas, the more secluded Columbia Glacier, flowing Southward from the heart of the Chugach mountain range into Prince Williams Sound, East of Anchorage, seldom sees visitors except for the occasional science team and a few brave helicopter or daring boat tours.

Mendenhall Glacier

Each summer since the cameras starting clicking away back in 2007 someone from the EIS team has visited the cameras to retrieve the images. This summer I am making the rounds to both glaciers to grab images and make a few small repairs on the camera systems to ensure that they continue to run for another seven years.

Columbia Glacier 2007

This trip is my first to the Mendenhall glacier, and though I’ve scanned through all 90,000 plus images EIS has collected over the past seven years, I’m still surprised how the glacier looks in person. At most of the sites I’ve visited I am usually immediately blown away by the shear size of the glaciers. Not so much here. The Mendenhall Glacier almost looks like it is trying to hide, it looks weak. Once reaching proudly across the lake into which it terminates, Mendenhall now takes a small piece of lake front real-estate on the north side of the lake, far from where the cameras were initially installed, even further from where visitors are able to view the glacier.

I have visited the Columbia Glacier, Northwest of Juneau, for 3 years now. The glacier dynamics that have taken place over the past 30 years, including what I have witnessed over the past 3 years are wildly interesting. One thousand+ feet of deflation and well over ten miles of retreat in the course of a few decades is impressive. However, a more important and recent story is the separation of the two main branches of the glacier. Once an active juncture connecting two large flowing rivers of ice, looking across from our camera site I can now clearly see that there is absolutely no ice holding the two sides together. The West branch has retreated more than expected, and will soon begin to rise out of the ocean. The historically more active East branch has been sitting more or less in the same position for a couple of years. Given the potential for another 6 or so miles of retreat, based upon the well studied bedrock topography, all signs are pointing towards another large scale breakup similar to what happened between 2007 and 2010.

Currently we have two cameras installed at Mendenhall and two cameras installed at Columbia. We started our observation of the Alaskan glaciers with many more cameras but we have removed them since the glacier has receded so far as to leave the viewing angle of the cameras.

Columbia Glacier 2014

Gratefully on this revisit trip, aside from a couple of leaky camera housings, all of the cameras are still functioning perfectly and we have captured another years worth of images to add to our time-lapse videos. Our hope now is that these little image collectors keep doing their thing, clicking and recording every hour of daylight. Perhaps when I return next year after the highly dynamic summer melt season is over I will discover we will have captured yet another event that drastically changes the landscape. We will have to wait and see.