The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords

Measuring Climate Change

Kenai Glaciers 2021

The Mission

In August 2021, the Endeavour took a team of scientists to the glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park and beyond, southwest of Seward, Alaska.

The purpose of this expedition was to document changes in the glaciers, landscapes, and vegetation within the fiords using repeat photography. The team used the Endeavour to revisit more than 80 historical photo locations in the fjords, some from as early as 1908. Locating each site precisely, the team took new photographs, capturing the same field of view as the historical image.  Where the glacier was no longer visible, they established new points of reference closer to the terminus of the glacier for future research. This work gives the world an unequivocal, unambiguous, visual documentation of the effects of global warming, and hard data on its speed and magnitude. 

Kenai Fjords Map

The expedition lead was Dr. Bruce F. Molnia, a scientist emeritus with the US Geological Service, having spent four decades studying glaciers around the world.  He is the author or co-author of over 500 publications, including the massive study, Glaciers of Alaska, published in 2008, summarizing his and 250 other investigators’ work on more than 1,000 Alaskan glaciers.  His recent work has used rephotography of Alaskan glacier landscapes, comparing modern images to historical images to document the effects of global warming.  For a more complete biography of Dr. Molnia, click here.

Shawn Dilles, an image specialist who has worked with Dr. Molnia for more than a decade, has interests in geology, geography, oceanography, and astronomy.  He is a Virginia Master Naturalist, member of the Explorer's Club, a Volunteer for Science with the U.S. Geological Survey (where he worked to release over 10,000 maps of Alaska and Hawaii to the public), and at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, where he helped reorganize the worldwide collection of corals, and over 30,000 fossil insects.  He is also the editor of The Journal of the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. 

Kim Angeli was a cartographer at the US Geological Survey for 40 years, specializing in photogrammetric processing and remote sensing research in support of the USGS Topographic Map series, and on projects related to natural hazards, disasters response, intelligence, global climate change, and environmental research and analysis.  

The ship's crew was Bill Urschel, Patsy Urschel, and Chris Clark-Johnson.

Summary Results

The Endeavour left Seward, Alaska, on August 3rd, 2021, on schedule with the team aboard. The weather was generally overcast with some low clouds, but the seas were calm and the temperature was in the mid-50s.

In many places, the team used the Scout, the Endeavour’s riverboat with its propeller-less outboard motor, to get up shallow rivers to the distant terminus of several glaciers and to reach photo locations onshore.

The fjords and glaciers covered include:

  • In Resurrection Bay, Prospect, Spoon, and Porcupine glaciers were all obscured by low clouds.  Bear Glacier, which is by far the largest in the bay, was clear.

  • In Holgate Arm, Holgate and Little Holgate glaciers were clear.

  • In Aialik Bay, Aialik, Skee, Lechner, and Pederson glaciers were clear.

  • In Northwestern Lagoon, Northwestern, Anchor, and Ogive glaciers were clear. 

  • The party dubbed one unnamed glacier on the southeast corner of the lagoon “Patsy’s Glacier,” in honor of Patsy Urschel.

  • In Southwestern Inlet, Southwestern and Reconstituted glaciers were clear.

  • In McCarty Fjord, Little Dinglestadt and McCarty glaciers were partly obscured.

Most of the glaciers showed radical shrinkage from the last set of photos taken in 2007 and 2008 -- not even 15 years ago.  From the 1908 locations, most of the glaciers were not even visible.  The fjords once packed with ice a thousand feet thick and miles across are now empty air, with all that water lost to the sea.

 

Aside from what this loss tells us about our warming environment, it shows why - when extended to glaciers and icepacks around the world -- the sea level has risen 8 inches since 1900, with three of those inches in just the last 20 years. Three inches may sound small, but this small increase has caused a 233% increase in tidal flooding across the United States. Dr. Molnia's ongoing work shows us that the melting not only continues, it is accelerating.

2021 Kenai Glaciers Route

The team had hoped to have time to get to Split Glacier in the north arm of Nuka Bay and Yalik and Petrof Glaciers in Nuka Passage, but the NOAA marine forecast for the last day was ominous, predicting 30-knot winds and nine-foot swells in exposed waters, so the team headed back to Seward a day early, ahead of the weather.   

In all, over the week, Dr. Molnia and the team located over 75 photo locations, recorded the GPS coordinates and took new photos, and established a dozen new reference locations for future comparisons.  

-- Bill Urschel

Watch the Videos

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The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords

This is a short video on the expedition and the results, narrated by Bill and Patsy. Length 05:12.

Webinar: Warm Ice

This is Dr. Molnia's presentation on glaciers, his rephotgraphy technique, and the Alaska Endeavour expedition in particular. Length 55:36.

Resources

Click on a title to download the document or follow the link.

Cold As Ice, An Introduction to Glaciers and Glacier Processes - Molnia (2017)

This deck by Bruce Molnia describes the world’s ice fields and glaciers in general, but most of the deck is a pictorial dictionary of terms relating to glaciers.  It drives home the realization that glaciers are so much more than just rivers of ice.  This is an excellent place to start an understanding and appreciating glaciers. 128 slides, 51 mb.

Satellite Image Atlas of Glaciers of the World, Alaska - Molnia (2008)

This is the definitive study of Alaska Glaciers, edited by Bruce Molnia with contributions by many others. This is a masterpiece of science and history.   This isn’t the first book or deck one should read on glaciers (“Cold as Ice” is a good place to start), but everyone with an interest in Alaska glaciers should download this work. It is very large. 554 pages, 92 mb. 

Coastal Glaciers of Prince William Sound and Kenai Peninsula - Grant & Higgins (1913) 

This is the seminal study of Alaskan glaciers using photographs and detailed maps. Cook in 1778 and Vancouver in 1794 were the first to describe some of these glaciers in English, but their descriptions didn’t go much beyond calling them “walls of ice, from which blocks fell into the sea.”  Dall examined the glaciers in a part of Cook Inlet (1880-1885), and Mendenhall and Schrader examined others in 1898.  In 1899 the Harriman Expedition blasted through the region, mapping and taking photographs of 25 glaciers in Glacier Bay and up the coast but spending very little time in any one spot (they covered 9,000 miles in 60 days, or 150 miles a day).  It was Grant and his associates who first took the time to study, map, and photograph these glaciers in the fieldwork from 1905, 1908, and 1909, distilled here in this USGS publication.  Grant didn’t know about global warming, but he realized the value of baseline data: “In any study of the positions of glacier fronts, dated photographs are of prime importance, for they furnish detailed observation. If the photographs are taken from easily recognized stations which can be occupied in later years, the value is still greater.”  75 pages.  66 photos and maps, 16 mb.

Geology and Mineral Resources of Kenai Peninsula Alaska - Martin, Johnson, & Grant (1915)

This is the report on mineral resources the US Geological Survey wanted when it sent Grant and others into the field some years earlier.  This report is not so much about glaciers as it is geology and mineralogy.  Much of the science has been superseded, but it is an interesting book with excellent maps.  279 pages, 216 illustrations, 35 mb.

 Frozen in Time, The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords - Molnia (2006)

This deck by Bruce Molnia shows his 2005 photographs of the Kenai glaciers compared to the 1909 photographs of Grant and Higgins.  The Endeavour expedition of 2021 was, essentially, updating this work.  21 slides, 4 mb.

Glacier Photo Collection Sites - Molnia (2021)

This is an informal deck that Bruce Molnia prepared for the 2021 Endeavour expedition, comparing the maps from Grant and Higgens to modern maps of a larger scale. Captain Urschel used it to plan a course and choose anchorages.  9 slides, 1.6 mb.

In the Footsteps of John Muir, Landscape Change in Southern Alaska - Molnia (2019)

This deck, prepared by Bruce Molnia, is an engaging history of imaging in Alaska, from the earliest photographs through aerial photography to remote imaging by satellite.  Many views are shown from the same spot throughout the decades. 136 sides, 23 mb.

Introduction to Repeat Photography - Molnia (2015)

This deck shows how “rephotography” or imagine pairing works, and how it demonstrates the change in specific locations in Alaska. 116 slides, 18 mb.

Field Notes: Listening to the Ice - Kenai Fjords National Park (2013)

This video produced by Kenai Fjords National Park talks about glaciers as bellwethers for global warming and describes Bruce Molnia's work.  7.1 minutes.

See for yourself: Alaska's disappearing glaciers, then and now - Anchorage Daily News (2016)

This article from the Anchorage Daily News profiles Bruce Molnia and his work.

Repeat Photography: Capturing Change - National Park Service (2019)

This webpage shows nine locations with before and after photos arranged side by side, meaning the photo on the right is a continuation of the photo on the left. 

Repeat Photography of Alaskan Glaciers - US Geological Survey (2012) 

This webpage contains a is a very detailed description of the repeated photography of 16 Alaskan glaciers.

Bruce Molnia's Repeat Photos of Alaska, and What He Says They Reveal About Our World - The Weather Channel (2014)

This article on the Weather Channel is a good introduction to Bruce Molnia, his work, and what it shows about global warming.