On the Moraine

August 3, 2021, Continued


This is 3 of 11 log posts covering The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition.
In the Bear Glacier lagoon, at the moraine looking north. (Photo: Author)

Back up the River


After lunch we headed back out in the Scout, this time to find the location of an older photo on the moraine, which would be much closer to the Endeavour. Shawn and Chris stayed behind this time. Bella came with us.


By now, the tide had turned and the river was lower and much faster, about as fast as I can run, and now in the middle of the mouth there was a big, exposed rock. But with only three of us and the dog in the boat, the little outboard could get us up on a plane and we zoomed up the fast water, dodging chunks of ice. What a difference.


In the quick current I made a tight turn around a large chunk of ice and ran the Scout up onto the gravel moraine. Bella was first out. We three followed and I tied the painter to a rock while the others dropped their life jackets. Kim got out the binder.


We walked down the gravel bar to find the exact spot for the first old photo. The gravel bar here is made up of small, rounded shingles of hard dark gray slate – perfect skipping stones – that crunched under our feet. Across the river from us someone had tied orange survey tape to two small trees a dozen yards apart, marking the approach for a bush plane landing spot on this side of the river. We could see the airplane tire tracks in the gravel right behind us, heading over the top and toward the surf on the other side. It wasn’t much of a landing strip. I used to fly a bush plane, a 1955 Cessna 180 taildragger, down in the deserts of the southwest. I would have had to give this one a lot of thought.


We found the photo spot. This picture was interesting because the glacier was so much closer then, but also because the vegetation between us and it had radically changed. In the old photo there was almost none, while now we were looking at a lush riparian forest. Bruce said that his data wasn’t only showing the magnitude and speed of the glacial retreat, but how quickly and in what order vegetation reclaims the newly-exposed land.


There was another Grant and Higgins spot on the other end of the moraine roughly two miles northwest. We got back in the Scout and worked our way along the same shallow shore, through the smaller ice we had picked our way through before lunch.


Fellow Travelers


Halfway to the second location, past where we had met the shore before, we caught up to a family of three − mom, dad, and little kid − walking their way along the beach. The parents had packs and were pulling the kid in a red plastic kayak, and all three of them were bundled up like blue and silver Eskimos. I assume they had been dropped off by one of the small eco-tour boats out of Seward, or maybe the bush plane, but I didn’t want to ask and intrude on their moment, any more than we already were with our aluminum boat and outboard. When we found the photo spot we were looking for and got our photo and coordinates, we headed back. By now the family had set up camp on the beach and were sitting there together with a magnificent view up the glacier, luminescent in the late afternoon light. They waved.


On the way back down the river I turned on my camera and let it run to get a long video of the ice sliding by in the pearl-gray light under the clouds, whisps of white clouds up around the glacier and in the canyons on either side. I imagined I would use the video as a screen saver on my computer. (Later, in the audio, I would hear Bruce up at the bow having a one-sided conversation with Bella about the view.)


At a more open spot in the ice, we came upon three people standing up on paddle boards, a man and two women, each dressed in orange immersion suits. They looked like traffic cones. They were heading the same way we were. They waved too.


I’m not used to seeing people out in the fjords, but we’re not even an hour from Seward by fast boat, and eco-tourism is big here. I thought I’d be irked by the company, but I wasn’t. Everyone had the same look of wonder and appreciation on their faces that we did.


On to Paradise


Back on the Endeavour, I winched the Scout onto the top deck, got us underway, and we headed due south, out the south end of Resurrection Bay. Bruce and Shawn were with me in the pilothouse.

I continued with my questions.


———


Bill: How much should we care about sea ice melting? Since it's already on the ocean, the problem isn’t that melting sea ice will flood the coasts.


Bruce: Sea ice is critical. In the last 40 years when we started satellite monitoring of sea ice we’ve lost more than 80% or 90% of multiple-year ice. All we get now in most places is just ice that forms rapidly, and melts rapidly, so the Arctic is warming so much more rapidly. It used to be that 90 or more percent of the solar energy that hit sea ice was reflected into space. Now it warms melt ponds on the surface of the ice, accelerating its melting, and accelerating the warming of the ocean’s surface.


The Arctic is warming so much more rapidly than anywhere else. Since 1949, the average temperature change for the entire state of Alaska is 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s in just 72 years. That’s twice the rate of the rest of the world. But the Arctic Ocean is warming even faster. Barrow and other stations on the shore have warmed 15 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, on average.


Shawn: How will that change ocean currents?


Bruce: That’s an interesting question. What drives ocean circulation in the Atlantic? It’s sea ice in the Arctic. It’s fresh water concentrating brine below it, literally freezing the salt out of the seawater as it forms ice crystals. So you get this dense brine forming below the sea ice. Over a short period of time it sinks and it moves along the ocean bottom, and goes out Fram Strait, and drops over the lip of the shallow Arctic outlet into the North Atlantic, and that causes the North Atlantic circulation. That’s the engine.


So, if you no longer produce brine, you no longer produce cold bottom water. What’s going to drive the Gulf Stream?


Bill: And the Gulf Stream determines the climate all the way up the Atlantic coast of the United States.


———


As we passed features formed by glaciers, Bruce pointed them out. There was an island with its top rounded off, with the gentler slope pointing back up the fjord, called a rouche moutonnée. It was once a headland, scalped from the back by a glacier long gone. The name is French, meaning “sheep-shaped rock.” The whole peninsula was a long, ragged chain of round anchorages with sharp steep walls, like volcanic craters. These are cirques, Bruce said, also French from the Latin for circus, but the Scottish Gaelic term coire, meaning a pot or cauldron, is more descriptive. From above, on charts or satellite imagery, the peninsula looks like a long thin slice of pizza with many bites taken out. They’re not volcanic, though. They were created by glaciers when the glaciers were this far down the peninsula, and the peninsula was higher above sea level. The thin jagged ridges separating them are called arêtes, ground like the blade of serrated knife by the glaciers that cut the cirques.


One term that vexes many people is fjord. Or is it fiord? The name of the National Park is “Kenai Fjords,” but the NOAA charts call the individual “long narrow inlets of the sea between high steep cliffs formed by glacial action” fiords. Other maps and authorities use both forms. The word was originally Norwegian, so I’ll use the spelling that looks more Norwegian.


In between the geology lessons Kim told me about wiring his house with solar panels, connecting them to a battery system, and that even after charging his electric car he was sending power back to Dominion Power, his local electric utility. And this is in Virginia, not known as a high-sunshine state. It’s an interesting relationship: when Kim sends power back during the summer he gets credits that he uses against the power he consumes in the winter. As a side benefit, his entire house is on battery backup when a storm hits. I was distracted by driving the boat and wish I had been running the recorder.


We passed through the Cheval Narrows and made a wide westerly turn around Aialik Cape into Aialik Bay and, just as the light was giving out, turned east into Paradise Cove, one of those steep and deep circular bays. We anchored in 80 feet of water, not far from a saddle separating us from the next cirque, Cliff Bay. The dark green hemlocks grew down to the water, which was milky green. The saddle was worn smooth by the bellies of otters taking the shortcut.


We were in for the night.



- William Urschel