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Pederson Glacier

The practical argument for renewables

Dilles, Urschel, and Molnia in the Pedersen Glacier lagoon. (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 anchored the Endeavour off the mouth of Peterson lagoon. The tide was low and there was a sand bar sticking out of the mouth like a giant tongue 250 yards long, leaving only a narrow stream on the north side, maybe four or five feet deep and – right now – running fast. We launched the Scout and headed inside. Around the backside of the moraine, we tied up and climbed up onto the dyke, looking for the old photo locations.

In 1880, the terminus of the glacier was right here, at the moraine. In 1909, Grant and Higgins photographed it 400 yards back. Now, it had retreated so far up the valley that we couldn’t see it. We had to triangulate off trees in the old photo (which were dead trunks now) to find the exact spot so that we could photograph a glacier that was no longer there. We could feel the glacier, though. The cold was pouring down the valley in an invisible river of air.

The birds here were more interesting than the gulls and cormorants at Squab Island. There were dozens of Horned Puffins and a few Tufted Puffins swimming around, the males of both types with white faces and thick orange beaks that looked like wire cutters. The two varieties are similar, except the tufted type has a long set of fine blonde feathers over their eyes that flow backward, like a wind-blown comb-over. There was a pair of Black Oystercatchers pecking on the sand. These are dark birds the size of a small chicken but with orange eyes and long, straight, and intensely orange beaks.

Back at the Endeavour, we picked up Patsy and returned to the lagoon, this time heading upriver to go find the glacier. In the lower part it wasn’t obvious where the channel was. The lagoon was shallow and packed with seaweed. I had to stop the motor three times, hand Patsy the rifle, and pull weeds out of the jet pump intake. Further up, the river picked up speed and the little 30-horsepower jet outboard did its best, but it was slow going.

The river snaked left, then right, then left again and entered a huge empty canyon with bare rock walls about 2,000 feet high on the south side and almost as high on the north side. The face of Pedersen Glacier was in front of us, across a deep lake. It was almost two miles back from the moraine. Kim pulled out the big white binder and he and Bruce started holding up the old photos, turning one way then another, trying to figure out where Bruce took the photo from in 2006. They triangulated peaks, found the spot, and Bruce took the new picture.

Meanwhile, Patsy and I were in the stern, having a silly moment, making faces at each other like first graders in the back of the class, trying to crack each other up.

Bruce – like a teacher calling for attention – said, “You know, when I was last here, all this was ice.”

The emptiness was profound. A rough estimate of the glacier lost since Grant’s time, is a block of ice two miles by half a mile wide by a quarter mile tall. We could feel it gone. It’s melted away into the ocean.

And Pedersen is only a speck of the Harding Icefield that covers the Kenai Mountains, and the Harding Icefield is just a postage stamp of the glacial ice in Alaska. And all the glacial ice in Alaska is just one-tenth of one percent of all the glacial ice in the world. And this melting is happening everywhere.

Back on the Endeavour, we had a 15-mile run south down Aialik Bay in the fading light. Shawn was up in the pilot house with me.

“How do you respond to climate deniers?” I asked him.

“I’ve been having a discussion on this with a friend for about 20 years now,” he said. “He has a lot of Exxon stock. He’s a lawyer. He acknowledges that it’s warmer, but he refuses to acknowledge that it’s human-caused. He doesn’t want any culpability for himself, or for the fossil fuel industry, or for America as a country.”

Shawn said he changes the question from cause to solutions. “What I said to him is, I’m a big advocate for renewables and electric vehicles for three reasons:”

“First, I grew up in New Jersey and I don’t want to see and smell refineries, deal with the pipelines, spills; I’d rather not have them.”

“Second, I’d rather be energy-independent and not worry about where the oil comes from and who we’re paying for it.”

“And third, our power grids now are fragile and need to be rebuilt anyway – and this is a good thing. New grids built on renewables will be more resilient. If someone nukes two-thirds of our country the remaining third will still have power and be hundreds of years ahead of the rest – it could save civilization.”

“So, when my friend says, ‘Are you telling me global warming is man-made?’ I tell him, yes, but it doesn’t matter. Why wouldn’t you use renewables? In the long run, they are cheaper, more secure, and more resilient.”

We turned west at Aligo Point, running six miles behind long thin Granite Island in protected waters before turning in to Crater Bay for the night.

— William Urschel

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