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Holgate Arm

Why we should care that the glaciers are melting

At the terminus of Holgate Glacier: Urschel, Molnia, and Dilles. (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 headed out into Aialik Bay, which stretched far away to the north. The fog had evaporated enough that we could see a handful of small glaciers. We headed up, finding the positions on the open water from which the old photos had been taken, and retook them. After an hour or so, we turned northwest into Holgate Arm.

Holgate Arm is about four miles long and roughly a mile wide with steep wooded sides. It’s a classic glacier-cut fjord. Holgate Glacier comes in at the top and Little Holgate Glacier comes in from the left. Separating the two is a steep haystack of an island about a hundred feet high. The water is deep, but I found a high spot to drop the anchor on, so I wouldn’t have to put out and recall a lot of chain. It was a marginal anchorage, but we wouldn’t be there overnight. We lowered the Scout and headed to the beach. We were looking for the spot where Grant and Higgins took their photo in 1909. I carried the bear rifle.

It was obvious at a glance that “big” Holgate Glacier was almost exactly where it had been 112 years ago. Little Holgate, though, was almost gone. There was a bare empty canyon where it had been, with a flume of water coming down off the remnant ice above with a roar that echoed off the rock walls.

Not all melting glaciers retreat, Bruce said. Some hold their position or even advance, but with less ice above and behind them, thinning out and spreading like melting ice cream on a plate.

We got our photos from that side of the fjord and crossed over to the canyon where Little Holgate had been. One of the photos in the white binder was of Bruce, a younger man in 2006, standing in front of a tooth-shaped rock, pointing to an ice tunnel in the face of the glacier. There was still some of the glacier left, then. Having a landmark in the foreground of these old photographs is useful. It convinces people you’re on the right spot. The glacier is now melted back, and there’s no tunnel anymore. But we found the rock. It’s still there. Bruce struck his pose in front of it, and we took the picture.

Bruce didn’t say much about it, but I imagine he felt the passing of time. He was the same man in the same spot fifteen years later. The glacier is gone, but he’s still here, doing the work.

Later, back on board, I asked Bruce, “Why should we care that the glaciers are melting?”

“The simple answer,” he said, “is that glaciers are the single largest reservoir of fresh water on Earth, and as the glaciers melt, that water goes into the ocean, and the sea level rises, and if you live near the coast – guess what – your house is flooded. So, yeah, it may not be important to you because the ice is in Alaska or Greenland or Antarctica, but when there is no longer any ice in Alaska or Greenland or Antarctica, your house is going to be 50 feet under water.”

“It also means there are going to be massive changes to the ecosystems and to the types of weather we’re used to,” he added. “Look at the weather in the west over the last five years, the fires, the storms in the east and south. That’s all due to the same forces that are causing the glaciers to melt. In 50 years there will be no temperate glaciers left below 2000 meters.”

We took the Scout over to “big” Holgate Glacier, which still ends at the water – a tidewater glacier – and beached the skiff on the north side. We were maybe 50 yards from the wall of ice. We felt the deep cold radiating off the face, a 25-degree drop from the other side of the fjord. We walked up to touch the glacier with our hands. The surface was like a cracked blue glass cut with rough vertical crevasses dozens of feet high. I heard water dripping inside.

- William Urschel

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