The Importance Of Glaciers To Alaska & The Environment

Our tours access the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation area to experience the glacier up close. Its beauty is clear, but what isn’t always clear is why glaciers are important and climate scientists spend time researching them as they retreat or advance. The fluctuation in these ice forms and their overall melting is the most visible sign of climate change we have. Why is it so important to understand them?

Why Glaciers are Important

Over the history of the Earth, melting glaciers have been important in creating different geologic formations, including U-shaped valleys, hanging valleys, arêtes and horns. The glaciers that we currently have are typically thousands of years old and are important to keep the ocean’s natural cycles working properly. They are important for the wildlife that makes their homes on and around the glaciers, from wolves and bears to sea lions and fish. Glaciers also play a role in the life or livelihood of the people living nearby.

During the life cycle of a glacier, it releases glacial silt and contributes massive volumes of freshwater to both land and marine environments. The glaciers scrape bedrock into round particles of clay or rock, which get carried away by tides or rivers. The particles of glacial silt include nitrogen, phosphorus and organic carbon, which act as nutrients that feed phytoplankton, which feed krill and herring, which feed humpback whales. Our trips educate visitors on the important role that glaciers have in history and the current environment.

Impact of Melting Glaciers

What will happen as glaciers across the globe continue to melt? When it isn’t replaced by new ice forming the next year, the freshwater that melts off glaciers will add to our sea levels and contribute to dangerous ocean rising across the globe that can displace people and animals. That’s why it is important to focus on the overall retreat of a glacier and not the amount it gains or loses in a single year.

This additional freshwater has other negative impacts. It is lighter than saltwater and pushes saltwater down. This changes the overall Thermo Haline Circulation of the ocean or the currents in the ocean. Wildlife and humans both depend on proper flow of the ocean, and majorly disrupting these currents could have very significant effects.

It’s also important to know that you might hear of places with lowered sea levels due to climate change. Typically, this is in areas where glaciers are holding land down, such as in Greenland. As the ice melts, it will release the land and allow it to rise. This is known as glacier rebound, a phenomenon that occurs when the crust returns to its original position before the ice formed over it. But most places will see a rise in sea level from retreating glaciers.

Where to See a Glacier

While you might be drawn to Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park to see the variety of tide water glaciers located here, we take people to the Mendenhall Glacier within Tongass National Forest for a glacier-viewing experience.

Our biggest priority is to help others have safe, amazing outdoor adventures, whether it is whale watching via the seat of a sea kayak paddling up to a glacier, or spending the day out in the true Alaskan wilderness – contact us today.