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Bear Glacier Retreat

The ice that wasn't there

Dr. Bruce Molnia in the lagoon at Bear Glacier. (Photo: Kim Angeli)

This post continues the Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition, gathering photographic evidence of global warming in Alaska with researchers Bruce Molnia, Shawn Dilles, and Kim Angeli on board the Endeavour.


We cut southwest across Resurrection Bay and rounded Callisto Head. The visibility was good over here, with broken clouds at about 1,000 feet with higher clouds visible above them.

Bear Glacier was an enormous river of white and blue ice, stretching south up to the horizon at the far end of the valley. Between us and the face of the glacier was a large lagoon created by the moraine, a long rocky sand bar in front of us left by the retreating glacier, with huge icebergs trapped between the glacier and the moraine. The mountains on both sides of the valley were sharp, green, and lush. It looked like Hawaii, with icebergs.

We anchored just off the moraine, on the west side of Callisto Head, just out from the mouth of the small river coming out of the lagoon. The mouth was narrow, about 15 yards across. Surf broke on rocks behind us. We dropped anchor in 35 feet of water.

It was much colder than it had been out on the open water. It had dropped from the high-50s to the mid-40s. The cold air was flowing down from the glacier, across the ice-packed lagoon, right to us. It felt like we were standing in front of the open door of a meat locker.

We lowered the Scout, our aluminum boat with an outboard jet, and five of us – me, Bruce, Shawn, Kim, Chris – and Bella our short-legged dog – got in and headed up the shallow river.

An outboard jet doesn’t have a propellor sticking down beneath the boat like most outboards. It has a pump that shoots water out the back, right at the surface. This lets it run in ankle-deep water, getting us places a propellor could not. But for the same horsepower, a jet outboard is less powerful than a propellor outboard, and a lot noisier. With the heavy load of five men and a dog, it couldn’t get the boat up on a plane. It was slow, and it was loud.

Just up from the mouth, the river turned sharply left and widened to about 60 yards and a foot or two deep. The current was quick.

Bruce, Kim, and Shawn all had large black cameras hanging around their necks, Bruce and Kim with Nikons and Shawn with a Canon. The Nikons had GPS pods clipped into the flash shoes on top to automatically tag each photo with the latitude and longitude of where the photograph was taken. Camera phones have an internal GPS that does this automatically, but we needed better lenses and more pixels.

A mile up from the mouth the river branched. Straight ahead, the main channel was clogged with chunks of ice. The fork to the right was shallower but ice-free, so we turned that way. A few hundred yards further we ran into an even shallower spot and I had everyone get out. I pulled the empty boat over the riffles. Then we all got back in and headed up into the lagoon. All through the lagoon there were icebergs as big as houses, stuck on the shallow bottom.

There was a lot of smaller, broken ice all around us. We could hear a constant popping, like slow popcorn. “That’s the ice effervescing,” Bruce said. “Some people call it ‘bergie seltzer.’ It’s the air pockets that have been formed under multiple atmospheres of pressure, breaking through as the ice melts.” Chris said it sounded like the bergs were thinking.

Our first photo stop was on the shore of an island halfway up the lagoon, still about a mile from the glacier’s face. Bruce pointed to a spot on the beach and I ran the Scout up onto the sand. Bella jumped out first, over the bow.

Kim, the keeper of the records, took the white binder out of his knapsack and Bruce found the photo he was looking for. He had taken it himself 17 years ago. Even that recently, we didn’t have GPS that would record locations with the photographs. Bruce held the photo up between himself and the glacier. This wasn’t the right place. Not exactly. We all looked at the picture, then the glacier and the mountain peaks and the draws on the far side. The peaks didn’t line up perfectly.

We started up the beach, heading north, rechecking the photo against the skyline every twenty-five yards or so. Finally, even with the clouds clipping off the peaks of the ridge, we all agreed we were in the right spot. But the glacier was gone. From Bruce’s old photo, we could see it had receded more than a mile up-canyon. He could calculate by exactly how much later, but for now, he and Kim both took new photographs. These were our first trophies.

This was a good set of photos because the trim line was stark. The trim line is the horizontal line on the distant side of the valley, bare rock below and vegetation above. It shows how high the glacier was within the last few decades, having scraped away the vegetation. This trim line was hundreds of feet above the surface of the lagoon. Where we were standing now had been under ice in my lifetime.

Bruce checked his camera’s GPS and it wasn’t working. From a backup GPS, Shawn read the coordinates to Kim, who wrote them down in a notebook, then Bruce wrote them down again directly on his old photograph. This is science.

We got back in the Scout and headed back to the Endeavour for lunch.

— William Urschel

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