Articles

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT GLACIERS

The few men who know them can read in the rivers of ice that orchids will bloom on Baffin Island and palm trees wave from Greenland’s shore. They say, too, that glaciers sometimes growl

MORTON HUNT November 15 1950
Articles

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT GLACIERS

The few men who know them can read in the rivers of ice that orchids will bloom on Baffin Island and palm trees wave from Greenland’s shore. They say, too, that glaciers sometimes growl

MORTON HUNT November 15 1950

WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT GLACIERS

The few men who know them can read in the rivers of ice that orchids will bloom on Baffin Island and palm trees wave from Greenland’s shore. They say, too, that glaciers sometimes growl

MORTON HUNT

LORD FRANCIS DOUGLAS was supposed to show up at the foot of the Matterhorn glacier in the Swiss Alps last spring, but he didn’t keep the date.

Maybe he won’t ever keep it now; after all he’s been inside that glacier since July 1865. But Swiss glaciologists insist that the rate of flow of the river of ice should deliver his lordship at the foot any time now.

The optimistic experts find comfort in the appearance last year of Guiseppe Garrone at the foot of a Mont Blanc glacier. Garrone, an Italian schoolteacher, fell into an ice hole one day in 1910. He came out of the ice, the United Press reported, in perfect condition for a corpse, that is.

The chances for Lord Douglas (his party was first to make the Matterhorn peak, 14,780 ft.) are pretty slim, however. Hundreds of other cases of men falling into glacial crevasses have been checked, but little has eventually been thrown out by the glacier but knapsacks, shoes and the odd limb.

Glaciers might seem pretty slow stuff, but there’s always something happening around them that the average Joe never hears about. Take the glacier worms, for instance.

Even to experts on the polar ice caps “ice worms have until last year been only creatures that Jack London might have dreamed up. Explorers would tell straightface stories to service-club lunchers about bow they might have perished in the Arctic if they hadn t been able to net a mess of “ice worms” and fry them in seal fat.

Now a field party from the Arctic Institute of North America has actually found worms in old glacier ice in southeast Alaska and the Yukon. The party’s leader, Walter A. Wood, informed a startled world that the ice worms were white, about one inch long. He had turned some specimens over to the American Museum of Natural History.

Then there’s another, and much more important, angle to glaciers. They are really gigantic weathervanes for the world. And at the moment they’re pointed to Fair and Warmer. The latest data from the International Commission on Snow and Glaciers indicate that things are hotting up to the extent that palm trees on the shores of Baffin Bay and tropical jungles in the Yukon can definitely be expected. This shouldn’t happen till the year 20,000—but that’s only an hour or two away in the life of the world. By 10,000 A.D. Toronto will be enjoying the climate now caressing New Orleans.

Tins all adds up to the fact that we don’t know much about glaciers, even though Canada has many of the world’s largest, including the Yukon’s five-mile-wide Kaskawulsh which winds over 1,300 miles.

During the last 50 or 60 years glaciers have been shrinking on a world-wide scale. True, there still are a few here and there that grow longer. But, by and large, the rivers of ice are retreating up the mountains and uncovering more and more of the hidden earth.

The Dominion Water and Power Bureau recently found that glaciers in the Rockies had been steadily receding since 1887. Franklin Glacier, in the Coast Range, had backed up 4,500 feet since 1927. Muir Glacier, in Alaska, had shrunk by 60 miles since 1794. And in the past decade or two the retreat seems to have speeded up. The average shrinkage seems to be about 89 feet a year.

That’s not lightninglike, but in a century even it’s quite a bit. What’s more to the point, it means something. If prevailing theories are right there will be more odd earth than just the of orchids on

Baffin Island in the centuries

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ahead. The centre of civilization will shift north away from the scorched United States and the nations of Mediterranean Europe. The ice lying around today on the earth, and slowly losing out, is the equivalent of about 4,300,000 cubic miles of water. When some or most of that joins the oceans their level will rise anywhere up to 164 feet, which is apt to dampen the glory of most of today’s great seaports, and lower the price of Manhattan real estate.

The mere fact that glaciers have been retreating is no guarantee, though, that they’ll keep on doing so. The four major advances of the ice during the 600,000-year Ice Age (out of which we began to emerge finally only 25,000 or 30,000 years ago) didn’t occur with any regularity. Some geologists therefore refuse to speculate on how long this warming-up phase will continue.

Not a Frozen River

Some even gloomily predict that after 20,000 years or so a new Ice Age will descend. They say that by 50,000 A.D. a new ice sheet, like the great ones of the dim past, will have completely erased Canada and most of the United States. London, Stockholm and Leningrad will all be covered. You’ll need long red underwear at the equator.

So the yearly “retreat of the glaciers” is not a matter of interest only to the makers of skiing equipment. By the way, glaciers don’t really move back —they continually advance, flowing downward like water (on level places some are stagnant). But some of the ice evaporates and some melts and runs off. Consequently, when the total loss exceeds the downward flow the glacier shrinks, or seems to be backing up.

There are a lot more misconceptions about glaciers. Most people seem to imagine a glacier is a frozen river (it isn’t); that it is as slippery as glass (it’s more like sandpaper); and that it is always a band of ice stretching down the slope of a mountain (that’s not the predominant type).

The truth is that glaciers are rivers of ice—but not frozen rivers. They start out in life not as water, but as ! snow. Snow falling on high plains or on mountains is trapped by the irregular shape of the land. Eventually in these deep areas, or cirques, the snow forms a great lake of frozen matter. The weight, plus various thawings and refreezings, begins to mash the snow down into an intermediate granular kind of ice called névé, and finally into true glacial ice which is as solid and clear as the kind you put in a highball.

When the ice overflows the cirque, or when it has formed on a high plain in the first place, the pull of gravity and the expansive force of the refreezings start it moving downward. Like water it seeks valleys to travel in. Like water it flows—around corners, over humps, through channels.

A thick flat sheet of humped ice in the cirque, or lying across hills and plains, is called an ice cap. When it overflows and sends a stream of ice down a valley it becomes a valley glacier. At the base of the valley where the ice spreads out on a plain it is called a Piedmont glacier. A Swedish scientist goes on to subdivide glaciers into another nine classifications, but we’ll stick to the basic three.

Most of the earth’s glacial ice is in ice caps, but most people know only the valley or Piedmont types because they’re more fun for climbers and skiers (valley glaciers are often snow covered).

Today glaciers cover nearly 6 million square miles of the earth—that’s about 10% of the land surface. Baffin Island alone has 12,000 square miles of ice; 55,000 square miles of the Canadian Arctic archipelago lie beneath ice. Eighty-five per cent of Greenland is covered by an ice cap 1,570 miles long, 600 miles wide, and up to 3,000 feet

Valley glaciers have always appealed to man. They are great ribbonlike affairs, winding through the mountains. Petermann Glacier, in Greenland, is 15 miles wide and 60 miles long, and Waltorshausen, also in Greenland, is 75 miles long. There are dozens of unnamed Alaskan and Canadian glaciers hundreds of miles in extent.

Valley glaciers can be menacing things. Some move so slowly that they cannot be seen to move at all—perhaps an inch a day. But in southern Alaska some fleet-footed glaciers have been clocked at 70 feet a day. Upernivik Glacier, in Greenland, holds the unofficial championship at a brisk 125 feet in one day.

The more rapid glaciers can actually be felt to move, and Tyndall Glacier, on Mount St. Elias, continually startled the members of the 1946 Harvard expedition to Alaska by lui ching jerkily. The movements are often accompanied by deep grumblings and growlings which the Indians quite reasonably ascribed to spirits. It took white men to find out that it was only ice that growled—but then the Indians were smart enough not to risk their necks.

The legend about how the Grand Pacific glacier tried to annihilate an Alaskan Indian tribe early last century still crops up. Month after month the glacier crept down on their valley home, and even the summer failed'to halt it. The Indians moved several times, but the ice slowly pursued themFinally they fled across Glacier Bay and established a new home on a small island. But the ice crept out across the water (like the “shelf ice” of the Antarctic) and, before it was through, scrubbed the island clean. The Indians once again had to take to their canoes.

Hottest Thing in the Arctic

In 1899 there was an earthquake at Yakutat Bay, on the Gulf of Alaska. In 1906 many glaciers in the vicinity began to spurt ahead with amazing vigor, one of them growing nearly two miles in less than a year. The answer, apparently, was that snow had avalanched down into the glacial sources far above in the mountains and it had taken seven years for the flash flood of ice to come ripping down the mountain-

Far more unnerving than the motion of a frisky glacier are the great cracks or crevasses in the ice. These fissures are often 10, 20, or 50 feet across; down inside are gleaming, blue-veined walls of solid ice stretching into darkness. Sometimes the fissures are covered by bridges of snow.

Maynard Miller, a member of the Harvard expedition on Mount St. Elias, took off his safety rope at 13,000 feet on a level part of a glacier to snap some pictures. Suddenly he felt the world open up under him as he stepped through some soft snow. He spread his arms and stopped abruptly, spreadeagled across a crevasse only a few feet wide. When, later, he was able to take a calm look downward he could see no bottom to the crack.

In 1948 a joint Canadian and American expedition to Juneau and Seward

ice fields actually lowered men into crevasses and learned a few odd things. In the first place, they never found a crevasse deeper than 100 feet—although at the bottom of several was a deepblue pool of water whose depth might be anything.

For another thing, they didn’t record a temperature below 32 degrees inside a glacier. So the great streams of ice are by far the warmest things around in the Arctic.

A Roof Got Burned

Even more surprising is the fact that you can get a fierce sunburn way up in the Rockies. Thermometers exposed to the sun in a sheltered place on the ice will read as high as 85 degrees, even above 10,000 feet where the air is bitter cold. Direct radiation is the answer to this puzzle.

A woman on a recent mountain expedition sprawled out on a tarpaulin and grabbed half an hour’s sunbathing with her sleeves and trousers rolled up. She nearly had to be sent back with a bad set of blisters. A photographer on another expedition ran around on the snow one day taking pictures and got winded. He breathed with his mouth open as he worked for the next half hour and that night found that the snow, reflecting the rays of the sun, had badly burned the roof of his mouth.

Honeymoon With Crampons

The surface of a glacier, far from being slick like home-grown ice, is usually encrusted with all sorts of pebbles, sand, rocks, and other matter when it isn’t freshly snow covered. It is seldom slippery. But when the climber does encounter a patch of glare ice he must rely on crampons and an ice axe. Crampons are sets of steel frames bristling with spikes; they are buckled on the bottom of the boots. Progress is made by digging in one foot, jabbing the axe into the ice, advancing the next foot and jamming it in, then pushing one’s body upward. If once you slip on glare ice—without wellanchored rope mates—you don’t stop until the end of the line.

But glacier fans are a hardy lot. One of them, Bradford Washburn, of the New England Museum of Natural History, was married in 1940. For a honeymoon he hauled his bride—a novice at climbing — up on a glacier climb of hazardous Mount Bertha in Alaska.

You can see glaciers firsthand without being a climber. The Banff-Jasper Highway in Alberta and the Big Bend Highway in British Columbia pass near enough to many great Canadian glaciers to give you quite an eyeful. The route of the Canadian Pacific Railway, climbing the Continental Divide through Kicking Horse Pass and then down to Golden, passes within view of almost every type of glacier. And if you’ve ever been near Lake Louise, Lake O’Hara, Emerald Lake, any of the Great Lakes, you’ve seen the biggest product of the great Ice Age.

As the ice sheet over North America melted much of the water was trapped in basins which became lakes. The Great Lakes were formed this way and were much bigger originally, perhaps twice as big. But as the ice sheet melted its colossal weight decreased and the land, which had been literally bent down, began to rise, spilling much of the trapped water. There was once a lake, known to geologists as Lake Agassiz, which ran from Minnesota and North Dakota clear up into Manitoba, covering much more area than all the present-day Great Lakes combined. ★