Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by glaciers. I grew up in Washington–the most glaciated state in the Lower 48–in a family that spent its free time skiing, backpacking, and fishing.
Those icy behemoths found their way into my life everywhere I played: the riverbed of the frigid, glacial-runoff-fed Cowlitz, where ancient pulverized rocks made a fine silty mud we couldn’t get enough of (god help my poor mother, washing rock flour out of her kid’s clothes, nostrils, ears); looking from afar at the Emmons Glacier’s yawning crevasses as it crawled, imperceptibly, down Mt. Rainier; backpacking through the lush Olympics in the summer and learning why the ice and snow hung on Mt. Olympus even when the rest of the range was a riot of summer color and warmth. I’ve never stopped learning about them–grilling my NOLS instructor in college about the broad glaciers of the Wind River range, gradually mastering the art of traveling safely across them, reading endlessly about their long and mysterious life cycles. And, of course, it’s hard to forget about these incredible forces of nature in such precarious times.
So, in honor of glaciers, here are five cool things you probably don’t know.
1. Glaciers hold 68.7% of all the earth’s fresh water, and if they all melted, sea levels would rise a massive 216 feet. This catastrophic situation isn’t imminent, but if it did someday come to pass the entire East Coast of the United States would disappear. Buenos Aires, London, Venice, Hong Kong, Shanghai…all underwater.
2. On a more positive note, despite warming temperatures and inconsistent snowfall in most of the world, a new glacier has formed. Nestled in the crater of Mt. St. Helens, which erupted in 1980, the young glacier benefits from a north-facing aspect and shelter from nearly all sides. Plus, the crater walls (and deadly cornices that form atop them) slough off into the basin, mimicking a much deeper snowpack than the crater actually receives.
3. Crevasses are rarely deeper than 150 feet, thanks to a phenomenon called plastic flow. Once you get deep enough, a glacier’s ice stops cracking. The weight of that first 150 feet of ice–called the “zone of fracture”–provides enough pressure to turn the ice beneath it into a sort of plasticine, slow-moving river that bends without cracking when it moves over convexities or takes a corner.
4. Moulins, on the other hand, can go straight to the bottom. These gaping holes in the surface of glaciers are formed by meltwater and often descend all the way to the base of the glacier. The meltwater helps with basal slip, the movement of the glacier along the ground beneath it. For glacier-travelers, the eerie “bottomless” holes are a sinister presence that can carry an unlucky trekker far deeper than of the reach of rescuers.
5. Speaking of sub-glacial water, Lake Vostok, the largest subglacial lake in Antarctica, was sealed off from the world (and sunlight) for 15 million years. However, researchers were able to take a clean sample of Vostok’s water in 2013. Amazingly, underneath nearly 4,000 meters of ice and an incredible amount of pressure, nearly 3,500 distinct life forms thrive. Despite appearances, Vostok and other subglacial waters are from barren, desolate environments.
Photo by Kimberly Vardeman
Want more on glaciers? Of course you do!
The bible of alpine knowledge, Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, is a terrific primer and should be on everyone’s shelf.
A deeper practical guide can be found in Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue.
Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers combines the photographs of National Geographic’s James Balog, the words of national treasure Terry Tempest Williams, and the power imperative of climate change.
Glaciers & Glaciation is a deep, deep dive—it’s a textbook, so it’s not cheap and isn’t a casual read, but if you want to lose yourself in ice, this is the way to go.